Washington State Superior Court Dismisses Lawsuit Against Injured Skydiver

Firm News Personal Injury & Wrongful Death
Jul 02, 2024

SEATTLE, WASH. (July 2, 2024) -- A Washington State Superior Court has dismissed a lawsuit against injured skydive customer Jaime Beenen, brought by Skydive Toledo, a company based in Lewis County that provides training and facilitation of skydiving. The court’s order requires Skydive Toledo to pay Beenen’s attorney fees after the company sued Beenen for initiating her own lawsuit when she suffered injuries that rendered her quadriplegic at the skydive outfit.

“It’s not exactly commonplace to sue a student jumper who was rendered quadriplegic at a business. But this lawsuit against Ms. Beenen was particularly egregious because it was based on illegal provisions in a contract, provisions that are flatly contrary to Washington law,” said Thomas Breen, an attorney at Schroeter Goldmark & Bender who represented Beenen. “The contract was taken out of a playbook from the skydive industry. Some out-of-state ‘skydive lawyer’ drafts a contract knowing nothing about Washington law, then files claims under the contract, and threatens the injured jumper with substantial attorney fees if she exercises her right to seek accountability. It’s done to intimidate and dissuade jumpers from bringing legitimate claims.”

After the lawsuit was thrown out and the contract terms deemed illegal, Skydive Toledo was surprised to learn that, under Washington law, it must pay attorney fees for having sued an injured patron under the illegal contract. On November 7, 2023, after dismissing all of Skydive Toledo’s claims, the Washington Superior Court entered an order to that effect.

“This is the first of many lessons for skydive businesses,” Breen noted. “Make sure your lawyer is licensed in your state and familiar with your state’s contract laws before you use a liability waiver or follow any recommendation to sue injured jumpers.”

After Skydive Toledo’s lawsuit was dismissed, Beenen continued with the prosecution of her claims against Skydive Toledo up until the eve of trial, when the parties reached a settlement. While neither party admitted fault, Skydive Toledo ultimately agreed to pay Beenen an amount that is strictly confidential. Skydive Toledo also agreed to the following:1) to only permit United States Parachute Association (USPA)-rated instructors or coaches to guide student jumpers midair over the radio; 2) when a jumper at Skydive Toledo is injured and needs to be transported to a hospital, or if their jump results in death, the facility must conduct an investigation, document the investigation, submit the investigation to the USPA, and preserve the incident report.

“We are pleased Skydive Toledo has agreed to address these deficiencies. Frankly, for too long, the skydive industry has gotten away with troublesome conduct by blaming the (sometimes first-time) jumper and taking no responsibility for its actions. Skydive Toledo has stepped up big-time here, recognizing these changes can make a difference,” Breen said.

Part of the reason these tragedies continue is because the skydive industry has created a culture where the goal is to protect skydive owners, not necessarily to do the right thing.

“It’s more difficult to find a skydive professional to testify against a skydive outfit than it is to find someone to speak out about their own profession in just about any other field; medicine, police—you name it.  Here, we found experts who confirmed that even under the USPA guidelines, Skydive Toledo’s use of someone with no certification ratings to serve as a radio instructor was improper, but the experts were unwilling to testify against a fellow skydive owner. One expert had the courage to speak up and demonstrate that Skydive Toledo’s actions were not only negligent but were also grossly negligent: The Court relied on this declaration and others when it refused to dismiss Ms. Beenen’s case,” said Breen. “Ms. Beenen was never told by Skydive Toledo prior to the day of her jump that the person instructing her over the radio was not certified, had never before instructed someone, had a long standing history of suffering from anxiety, was paid a $5 rebate discount for instructing, and was using Ms. Beenen’s jump to earn enough practice hours to someday become certified. If the case went to trial, the parties would have put forth their theories about what the instructor did or didn’t do correctly when Ms. Beenen was descending, but it was beyond dispute that had Ms. Beenen been told about the trainee’s lack of experience and qualifications, she never would have jumped,” said Breen.

Skydiving is unregulated and has a cozy relationship with its national body, the USPA. This relationship is indicative of the culture of the skydive industry that puts the interests of the sport over those of the participants. When a skydive operator voluntarily submits an incident report to the USPA describing a skydive incident, the USPA promises to destroy all documentation submitted to it about the dangerous crash.

“Again, we are pleased that Skydive Toledo has committed to document these crashes, submit them to the USPA and then preserve them, rather than let the lone copy of the investigation be destroyed by the USPA,” said Breen.

“Jaime Beenen will never be able to walk again or even write her name with a pen, but she takes great pride in knowing that Skydive Toledo has now committed to only putting forth USPA rated instructors,” Breen said. “Other skydive businesses may try to argue that it is not necessary, but Ms. Beenen could only demand that Skydive Toledo make these changes. Ms. Beenen can rest easier knowing that she had helped make one skydive outfit safer. Skydive Toledo is to be commended for agreeing to these changes. It took a horrible tragedy and turned it into a positive step forward by adopting practices that make it safer than other skydive outfits. Other outfits may still let trainees instruct student jumpers to the ground. But that won’t happen at Skydive Toledo.”

“We feel like we accomplished something here for the benefit of future student skydivers. We think this case should be presented at national skydiving conferences; other skydive facilities could stand to learn the lessons Skydive Toledo learned,” said Breen.

Ms. Beenen’s case against Lewis County, the airport owner, was dismissed by the Court and is now headed for appeal. Breen said, “We look forward to the appeal covering issues such as Lewis County giving Skydive Toledo not only the space on its property to run skydive training classes, but also the apparent backing of a governmental institution, thereby covering the public’s view of the serious deficiencies happening at Skydive Toledo. That case presents some fascinating legal issues. Onward we go.”