Sea Grant Law Center

Company Not Exonerated for Snuba Diving Death

Fukuoka v. Morning Star Cruises, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60666 (D. Hawaii August 24, 2006) 

Stephanie L. Velasquez, 3L, Stetson University College of Law 

In August 2002, a Japanese tourist drowned while visiting Hawaii with her husband and daughter. As part of their vacation, Mitsuko Fukuoka and her family had signed up for an underwater excursion with Morning Star Cruises. The outing involved “snuba diving” or “sea walking,” an activity in which participants wear a helmet connected to a tube designed to pump air into the helmet. During the excursion, Fukuoka was in the water for a few minutes when she gave a distress signal and attempted to return to the vessel by climbing the dive ladder.  Fukuoka fell backwards into the water and drowned shortly thereafter.

After Fukuoka’s estate brought suit against Morning Star, the company made a motion for summary judgment, claiming that there were no factual issues to be decided at trial and that it was entitled to judgment in its favor. Morning Star sought exoneration, or, in the alternative, limitation of liability, for Fukuoka’s death under the “Limitation Act” (Act).1 The Act allows a vessel owner to be exonerated from liability if he, his vessel, and crew are found to be completely free from fault.  Even if the ship owner is not completely free from fault, the ship owner may be entitled to reduced liability if he can prove he had no knowledge or privity to the vessel’s negligence.  

Exoneration Claim
Morning Star contended that it was entitled to exoneration from liability, pointing to an affidavit from Paul Yip, the owner of a Morning Star division. The affidavit stated that Morning Star’s “staff is trained to follow safety procedures in the event of an emergency,” its “crew members were trained in the operation, instruction, and first aid procedures …,” and its “crew responded to Mitsuko Fukuoka in accordance with its procedures.”2
The court held that Yip’s affidavit failed to explain how Fukuoka drowned; therefore, Morning Star did not demonstrate that it was not responsible for Fukuoka’s death. The court stated that although Morning Star had implemented safety training and procedures, it failed to show that these measures were sufficiently adequate or that proper procedure was followed during Fukuoka’s accident. Therefore, Morning Star was not entitled to summary judgment exonerating it from any liability stemming from negligence.   

Limitation of Liability
Morning Star asserted that under the Limitations Act, even if it was negligent, it is entitled to limit its liability because it had no knowledge or privity with respect to the alleged negligence. Morning Star pointed to Yip’s affidavit, which stated that “[p]rior to the incident . . . [,] Morning Star Cruises, Inc.[,] had no prior notice or knowledge or problems with the vessel, or procedures, or the ‘SeaWalker’ system.”3

In rejecting Morning Star’s argument, the court held that Yip’s affidavit was insufficient to prove that Morning Star had no “knowledge or privity” with respect to the alleged negligence. The court reasoned that a court must first determine what acts of negligence caused the accident, and because there was no knowledge of what caused the drowning, the court could not accept an assertion that Morning Star was not contributorily negligent. Therefore, Morning Star was not entitled to reduced liability stemming from negligent acts to which it had no “knowledge or privity.” 

The United States District Court for the District of Hawaii held that there were issues of fact regarding Morning Star’s alleged negligence that precluded Morning Star from exoneration through summary judgment. As a result, the court denied Morning Star’s motion for summary judgment, and the case will proceed to trial.

1. 46 U.S.C §§ 181-195.
2. Fukuoka v. Morning Star Cruises, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60666 at *8-9 (D. Hawaii. August 24, 2006).
3. Id. at *22-23.



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