Liability Challenges in High-Risk Business Ventures: Navigating Legal Complexities

The recent news of five individuals embarking on a perilous undersea voyage to explore the Titanic wreck has sparked a crucial discussion on the liabilities faced by both individuals and businesses engaging in high-risk activities. The absence of a definitive rubric to determine liability and the potential unenforceability of waiver forms have added complexity to this issue. In this blog post, we will delve into the complexities of liability in high-risk business ventures, examining the legal landscape and the challenges faced by businesses operating in such industries.

The Lack of a Clear Liability Rubric:

Experts interviewed in a recent NBC news article highlight the absence of a standardized rubric to determine whether a business will be held accountable for damages in the event of a mishap. The absence of clear guidelines poses a challenge for businesses seeking to understand and mitigate their liabilities. While most operators opt for liability insurance, the unenforceability of waiver forms further adds to the uncertainty surrounding liability in high-risk ventures.

Varied Legal Standards Across Jurisdictions:

Determining liability in high-risk businesses often depends on state laws and judicial interpretations, making the legal landscape complex and inconsistent. Kenneth S. Abraham, a distinguished professor of law at the University of Virginia, emphasizes that liability laws can differ from one state to another, creating challenges for businesses operating in multiple jurisdictions. This variation adds another layer of uncertainty when assessing the extent of legal responsibility.

The OceanGate Case:

OceanGate, the Washington-based company overseeing the Titanic exploration, required guests to sign a liability waiver that explicitly highlighted the possibility of death. However, the article suggests that even with such waivers, the company may not be fully absolved in a wrongful-death case. Nora Freeman Engstrom, a law professor at Stanford University, asserts that if an operator behaves recklessly, courts are unlikely to release them from liability. The circumstances surrounding the incident, including the level of operator negligence, would be scrutinized.

The Importance of Clear and Comprehensive Waiver Forms:

While waiver forms are commonly used in high-risk recreational activities like skydiving, snorkeling, or skiing, their enforceability may vary depending on the clarity of their language and the scope of potential accidents explicitly stated within the contract. Engstrom emphasizes that well-written waiver forms, encompassing the risks and accidents associated with the activity, are more likely to be upheld in court. However, the existence of a waiver form does not necessarily deter trial lawyers from pursuing legal action.

Navigating the Legal Process and Settlements:

Even with the presence of liability waivers, businesses in high-risk industries face the potential for lawsuits, often resulting in settlements rather than trials. It is worth noting that numerous lawsuits are filed against extreme-activity companies each year, with some cases taking years to litigate. A Montana-based scuba company, for instance, settled a lawsuit out of court after a guest’s death during a dive at Glacier National Park in 2000.


The case of the ill-fated Titanic expedition raises important questions about liability in high-risk business ventures. The lack of a clear liability rubric, combined with variations in state laws and judicial interpretations, creates a challenging legal landscape for businesses. While liability waivers and insurance coverage are commonly used risk management tools, their efficacy can be influenced by factors such as clarity, scope, and operator behavior. Greater clarity and consistency in legal frameworks, collaboration among industry stakeholders, and a comprehensive approach to liability assessment are necessary to provide businesses and individuals with a more predictable and accountable environment.

If you or a loved one have been injured in an accident, contact OnderLaw for your free, no-obligation consultation.