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Tennessee Tourism Firms Must be Accountable for Deadly Outings

Two women recently set out for a heart-thumping whitewater adventure on Grumpy’s Rapid in the Ocoee River, at the southern tip of the Great Smoky Mountains.

The two were on separate commercial tourism trips in this popular rafting location. Both lost their lives.

Our Knoxville premises liability attorneys know Tennessee’s heart-stopping beauty is an autumn draw for tourists nationwide.

While we must never underestimate the vast power that nature can wield or the way it can dramatically change course in a matter of seconds, the reality is, these incidents probably should never have happened.

Investigators are still piecing together all the details, but here is what we know so far:

The first victim, estimated to be between 45 and 50 years-old, was one of two people who were ejected from the raft after a series of steep drops that stretch some 100 yards below a nearby dam. One rider was brought safely back aboard. The other woman was able to hold on to a rope while rescuers fought to drag her to safety. However, she lost consciousness before reaching the shore. She never regained it.

The next day, almost exactly 24 hours later, another woman was with family and friends aboard a commercial raft excursion in almost the exact same place when she and several others were thrown from the vessel. While everyone else managed to make it to the riverbank, she did not survive. By the time rescuers located her and brought her to shore, efforts to revive her were not successful.

Officials refused to say whether the women were both patrons of the same commercial rafting company.

Resorts, rafting companies and other businesses that cater to tourists have a responsibility to know the conditions on the river and the risks novice riders will face. A company that knew conditions were dangerous and yet chose to take rafters out anyway could absolutely be held liable. Typically, these companies don’t get paid if they cancel for weather. Too often, that means taking chances with people’s lives.

While there are many responsible tourism companies in Tennessee, we can’t help being concerned that in the waning days of summer, as they try to maximize their end-of-season profits, some firms may relegate safety to the back seat. In many cases, these companies have riders sign a liability waiver. Often this generates confusion about whether an injury victim is entitled to seek a recovery in the wake of a serious or fatal accident. In general, a waiver does not absolve a company when it acts negligently or recklessly.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Boating Division reports that the leading cause of accidents in the state was hazardous waters involved in whitewater activities, followed by failure to have a proper lookout.

The type of accidents known to result in the most injuries were falls overboard.

The total number of accidents reported in 2010 in the state was 167, resulting in an accident rate of about 63 per 100,000 registered vessels. Boating fatalities that year were at 19, a slight drop from 22 reported in 2009.

The county with the most reported accidents was Polk County, where these two incidents occurred, as a result of whitewater activities. Polk was followed by Hamilton and Franklin counties.

The body of water known to produce the most boating injuries and fatalities? Ocoee River.

Some of those previously injured on Tennessee rafting trips have successfully sued the firms responsible. One case, against the Ocoee Rafting Co., is pending after a man alleges he broke his leg in five places during a rafting trip in August 2010. He alleges the guide asked if they wanted to pass through a series of dangerous rapids while spinning, also known as “tornadoing” the raft. He and his friend, both inexperienced rafters, said they declined, but the guide did it anyway, ultimately resulting in his injury. He is seeking $4.5 million in damages.

If you are injured in Knoxville, contact Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C. at (865) 524-5657.

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