Matthew Mack, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Viking Ski Shop, Inc., an Illinois Corporation, Defendant-Appellee (Salomon North America, Inc., a Delaware Corporation, Defendant).
APPELLATE COURT OF ILLINOIS, FIRST DISTRICT, THIRD DIVISION
2014 IL App (1st) 130768; 2014 Ill. App. LEXIS 684
September 24, 2014, Opinion Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 06 L 11817. The Honorable Lynn M. Egan, Judge Presiding.
Mack v. Viking Ski Shop, Inc., 2014 IL App (1st) 130768-U, 2014 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1812 (2014)
JUDGES: JUSTICE LAVIN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Fitzgerald Smith and Epstein concurred in the judgment and opinion.
OPINION BY: LAVIN
[*P1] This interlocutory appeal arises from the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in a negligence action to defendant Viking Ski Shop, Inc. On appeal, plaintiff Matthew Mack contends that the trial court erroneously granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to plaintiff’s negligence claim because a genuine issue of material fact existed regarding the element of proximate cause. Specifically, plaintiff contends that defendant set plaintiff’s ski bindings too high for his ability level, and as a result, his bindings failed to release, causing his knee injury. We affirm.
[*P3] This case arises from injuries sustained in a ski accident in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Plaintiff fell approximately halfway down an intermediate ski run and sustained a severe knee fracture of his left tibial plateau. Plaintiff purchased the skis and ski bindings used at the time of injury from defendant. Plaintiff commenced this action [**2] in November 2006, alleging negligence against defendant and third-party Salomon North America (Salomon). Plaintiff alleged, in pertinent part, that defendant failed to make a reasonable inspection before selling the ski equipment to plaintiff. In addition, defendant failed to properly adjust the ski equipment, specifically the bindings, to plaintiff’s height, weight, and ski type. Generally, in the ski industry, skiers are classified as type I (beginner), type II (intermediate), or type III (advanced).
[*P4] Several depositions were taken during discovery. Plaintiff testified that in November, 2004, he purchased new skis, boots, and bindings from defendant based on his size and ability. He told defendant’s sales representative that he was an intermediate to advanced skier. On March 10, 2010, plaintiff traveled to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where he had skied numerous times. On the day of the incident, he had one or two beers at lunch, and then resumed skiing. Approximately halfway down the Vagabond ski run, plaintiff was initiating a left turn when his right ski crossed over his left ski, causing him to fall on his back. He did not recall if any ski released from the binding. Believing [**3] his leg was broken, he radioed his ski companion Jody to call the ski patrol. Glenn Jones, a ski patroller, splinted plaintiff’s injured leg and used a toboggan to transport him off the mountain. The ski patrol immediately transferred plaintiff to the Yampa Valley Medical Center, where Henry F. Fabian, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon, operated on plaintiff. He remained hospitalized for 12 days and then resumed postoperative care in Chicago. Since the incident, plaintiff has endured five or six hospitalizations, due to infection, as well as extensive physical therapy.
[*P5] Peter R. Leffe, plaintiff’s mechanical engineering expert, testified that in his opinion, plaintiff was a type II or intermediate skier. Leffe also inspected plaintiff’s ski equipment using the standard industry Salomon manual and found that plaintiff’s bindings were set too high for a type II skier. Thus, Leffe concluded that defendant’s fitting of plaintiff’s ski equipment fell below the standard of care for a ski shop. Leffe noted that he had no intention to testify about the causal relationship between the subject injury and the binding functions because he did not hold himself out to be a biomechanical engineer.
[*P6] Defendant [**4] also submitted an affidavit of its engineering expert Jasper Shealy, who inspected and tested plaintiff’s ski equipment. He attested that over the course of his career he studied and conducted research on the relation between ski binding function and knee injuries. Based on defendant’s records, plaintiff selected a type III skier preference and his bindings were adjusted accordingly. Plaintiff, however, contends that he selected a type II skier preference. Despite this discrepancy, Shealy concluded that a lower ski type setting would not have prevented plaintiff’s injury because plaintiff’s bindings were not designed to protect against tibial plateau fractures. He stated with a reasonable degree of engineering certainty that the valgus/varus bending forces that cause tibial plateau fractures were not sufficient to cause a binding to release at any setting. Therefore, a lower setting of plaintiff’s bindings would not have prevented his knee injury.
[*P7] In April 2010, defendant filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that plaintiff failed to establish that his ski bindings’ setting was the proximate cause of his knee injury. In plaintiff’s response, he attached an affidavit by Leffe [**5] addressing the issue of causation, even though plaintiff failed to make this disclosure in Leffe’s Ill. S. Ct. R. 213(f) interrogatories or discovery deposition. After further briefing, the trial court granted defendant’s motion, finding that plaintiff’s claims were conclusory and speculative.
[*P8] Following this ruling, two more discovery depositions were taken. Jones, a part-time ski patroller for 23 years in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, testified that when he arrived on the scene, he physically released plaintiff’s left ski binding from his injured leg. Jones then aligned the injured leg and splinted it before placing plaintiff on a toboggan. The incident report indicated that plaintiff was an advanced skier, who caught his left ski tip in a slush pile.
[*P9] In addition, Dr. Fabian testified that beyond being an orthopedic surgeon, he held a biomechanical engineering degree and was a team doctor for the United States ski team. Plaintiff sustained a severe knee injury, specifically a grade six comminuted fracture of the tibial plateau. Dr. Fabian recalled the injury being one of the worst fractures he had ever seen. He noted that generally ski bindings did not prevent knee injuries, because from an engineering [**6] standpoint, the forces that were at the knee would not do anything to release the toe or heel of the binding until a certain force was reached. Although based on plaintiff’s fracture pattern, the supposed speed, and location on the mountain, “it would be very likely that bindings set too high were consistent with [plaintiff's] injury.”
[*P10] Thus, in October 2010, plaintiff filed a motion to reconsider the court’s summary judgment ruling, and in February 2011, the trial court granted the motion. The court concluded, that based upon the new deposition testimony of Jones and Dr. Fabian, there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the left ski binding did or did not release and, therefore, whether the alleged negligence on the part of defendant was the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury.
[*P11] In March 2011, defendant filed a motion to bar plaintiff’s expert Leffe from testifying at trial on issues of causation. The court granted the motion, noting that plaintiff failed to disclose this line of testimony in his Rule 213 disclosures. In addition, during Leffe’s discovery deposition, he testified that he did not intend to be an expert in the causal relationship between plaintiff’s injury and [**7] the binding function. Therefore, the court concluded Leffe’s new opinions would be prejudicial to defendant and were barred pursuant to Ill. S. Ct. R. 213. See Rule 213(g) (eff. Jan. 1, 2007).
[*P12] In January 2012, defendant then filed a renewed motion for summary judgment including a motion in limine to bar Leffe’s testimony at trial on issues of causation. Defendant also attached a subsequent evidence deposition of Dr. Fabian, who testified that plaintiff’s injury “could be and also could not be” consistent with a ski binding that did not release. Dr. Fabian noted that if plaintiff’s binding was set too high and did not release “it could contribute” to the fracture, but he also observed that this type of fracture could be obtained with an “optimally functioning binding.” Thus, Dr. Fabian could not say with any degree of medical certainty whether plaintiff’s injuries were caused or not caused by the ski bindings. Further, he testified that he was not an expert on issues of causation with respect to knee injuries and ski bindings.
[*P13] In October 2012, the trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that “the record before us [was] devoid of any affirmative and positive evidence that would create [**8] a question of fact regarding proximate cause.” The court also observed that in regards to Leffe’s barred testimony, plaintiff’s response brief failed to provide any substantive argument in support of a generic request to “vacate all previous orders regarding evidentiary matters.” Accordingly, it constituted waiver of this contention. Plaintiff now appeals.
T [*P14] ANALYSIS
[*P15] Plaintiff contends that the trial court erroneously granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment with regard to plaintiff’s negligence claim because a genuine issue of material fact existed regarding the element of proximate cause. [HN1] Summary judgment is proper where the pleadings, admissions, depositions and affidavits demonstrate there is no genuine issue as to any material fact so that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Ioerger v. Halverson Construction Co., Inc., 232 Ill. 2d 196, 201, 902 N.E.2d 645, 327 Ill. Dec. 524 (2008); 735 ILCS 5/2-1005 (West 2010). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must consider such items strictly against the movant and liberally in favor of its opponent. Williams v. Manchester, 228 Ill. 2d 404, 417, 888 N.E.2d 1, 320 Ill. Dec. 784 (2008). We review the trial court’s order granting summary judgment de novo. Weather-Tite, Inc. v. University of St. Francis, 233 Ill. 2d 385, 389, 909 N.E.2d 830, 330 Ill. Dec. 808 (2009).
[*P16] [HN2] In order to recover damages based upon a defendant’s alleged negligence, a plaintiff must prove that (1) the defendant owed the [**9] plaintiff a duty; (2) that the defendant breached the duty; and (3) that the breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Perfetti v. Marion County, 2013 IL App (5th) 110489, ¶ 16, 985 N.E.2d 327, 368 Ill. Dec. 754.
[*P17] Plaintiff first contends that the trial court erred by barring Leffe’s testimony on proximate cause. Initially, we note that plaintiff fails to cite to any relevant authority or develop his argument on this matter in violation of Illinois Supreme Court Rule 341(h)(7) (eff. Feb. 6, 2013). See First National Bank of LaGrange v. Lowrey, 375 Ill. App. 3d 181, 208, 872 N.E.2d 447, 313 Ill. Dec. 464 (2007). [HN3] This court is entitled to clearly defined issues, cohesive legal arguments and citations to relevant authority. Country Mutual Insurance Co. v. Styck’s Body Shop, Inc., 396 Ill. App. 3d 241, 254-55, 918 N.E.2d 1195, 335 Ill. Dec. 382 (2009). Accordingly, plaintiff has forfeited his contention on appeal. See TruServ Corp. v. Ernst & Young, LLP, 376 Ill. App. 3d 218, 227, 876 N.E.2d 77, 315 Ill. Dec. 77 (2007).
[*P18] Setting forfeiture aside, the purpose of discovery rules, governing the timely disclosure of expert witnesses, “is to avoid surprise and to discourage strategic gamesmanship” amongst the parties (internal quotation marks omitted). Steele v. Provena Hospitals, 2013 IL App (3d) 110374, ¶ 92, 996 N.E.2d 711, 374 Ill. Dec. 1016. As a result, Rule 213(g) states as follows:
[HN4] “The information disclosed in answer to a Rule 213(f) interrogatory, or in a discovery deposition, limits the testimony that can be given by a witness on direct examination at trial. Information disclosed in a discovery deposition need not be later specifically identified in a Rule 213(f) answer, but, upon objection at trial, the burden is on the proponent of the witness to [**10] prove the information was provided in a Rule 213(f) answer or in the discovery deposition. Except upon a showing of good cause, information in an evidence deposition not previously disclosed in a Rule 213(f) interrogatory answer or in a discovery deposition shall not be admissible upon objection at trial.” Ill. S. Ct. R. 213(g) (eff. Jan. 1, 2007).
[HN5] Pursuant to the rule, the decision of whether to admit or exclude evidence, including whether to allow an expert to present certain opinions, rests solely within the discretion of the trial court and will not be disturbed absent a demonstrated abuse of discretion. Cetera v. DiFilippo, 404 Ill. App. 3d 20, 36-37, 934 N.E.2d 506, 343 Ill. Dec. 182 (2010). Such an abuse of discretion occurs only if no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the trial court. Foley v. Fletcher, 361 Ill. App. 3d 39, 46, 836 N.E.2d 667, 296 Ill. Dec. 916 (2005).
[*P19] Here, plaintiff did not disclose Leffe’s intention to testify regarding proximate cause in his Rule 213(f) interrogatory. In addition, in Leffe’s discovery deposition, he testified that he had no intention to testify about the causal relationship between the subject injury and the binding functions because he did not hold himself out to be a biomechanical engineer. Moreover, plaintiff provided no explanation or showing of good cause below or on appeal for his failure to disclose Leffe’s opinions on causation. In granting [**11] the motion, the trial court specifically noted its concern of unfair prejudice to defendant because defense counsel was unable to question Leffe regarding his “opinions” on the matter, “qualification to offer such opinions,” or “the factual, scientific, or technical basis for his opinions.” Therefore, we cannot say that the trial court abused its discretion in this matter.
[*P20] We now turn to whether a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding the element of proximate cause. [HN6] In order to establish proximate cause, a plaintiff must establish both “cause in fact” and “legal cause.” Rivera v. Garcia, 401 Ill. App. 3d 602, 610, 927 N.E.2d 1235, 340 Ill. Dec. 224 (2010). Cause in fact is established if the occurrence would not have happened “but for” the conduct of the defendant. Bourgonje v. Machev, 362 Ill. App. 3d 984, 1007, 841 N.E.2d 96, 298 Ill. Dec. 953 (2005). Legal cause, by contrast, is largely a question of foreseeability, and the relevant inquiry is whether the injury is of a type that a reasonable person would see as a likely result of his or her conduct. Feliciano v. Geneva Terrace Estates Homeowners Ass’n, 2014 IL App (1st) 130269, ¶ 37, 14 N.E.3d 540. Furthermore, proximate cause must be established to a reasonable certainty and may not be based upon mere speculation, guess, surmise or conjecture. Bourgonje, 362 Ill. App. 3d at 1007. Because this case hinges on cause in fact, we need not consider legal cause. See Salinas v. Werton, 161 Ill. App. 3d 510, 515, 515 N.E.2d 142, 113 Ill. Dec. 333 (1987).
[*P21] In the case sub judice, the inference plaintiff seeks to establish [**12] is that defendant’s failure to properly set his ski bindings to plaintiff’s weight, height, and intermediate ability level prevented his ski bindings from properly releasing which directly caused his knee injury. This inference, while facially appealing, finds no support in the record. Dr. Fabian’s testimony as a whole fails to definitively establish, to any degree of medical certainty, a causal link between plaintiff’s bindings’ failure to release and his knee injury. In fact, Dr. Fabian testified that he was not an expert on the issues of causation with respect to injuries relating to ski bindings, and at best, the failure of plaintiff’s bindings to release “could be and also could not be” the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury. Accordingly, Dr. Fabian’s testimony is speculative and not enough to withstand dismissal on summary judgment. See Johnson v. Ingalls Memorial Hospital, 402 Ill. App. 3d 830, 843, 931 N.E.2d 835, 341 Ill. Dec. 938 (2010) (an expert’s opinion was only as valid as the basis for the opinion and conclusory opinions based on sheer, unsubstantiated speculation were not enough to survive the summary judgment stage); Wiedenbeck v. Searle, 385 Ill. App. 3d 289, 299, 895 N.E.2d 1067, 324 Ill. Dec. 352 (2008) (at the summary judgment stage, the plaintiff must present affirmative evidence that the defendant’s negligence was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s [**13] injuries, and the mere possibility of a causal connection was not sufficient to sustain the burden of proof).
[*P22] In addition, even if we take Leffe’s testimony as true that defendant incorrectly set plaintiff’s bindings too high for his skier preference, plaintiff still fails to provide substantial evidence that if his bindings were at a lower setting his injury would not have occurred. Plaintiff and ski patroller Jones did not testify regarding the element of proximate cause, and Dr. Fabian’s testimony was demonstrably equivocal. See Salinas, 161 Ill. App. 3d at 515 (although a plaintiff may rely on reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the facts considered on a motion for summary judgment, the circumstances must justify an inference of probability as distinguished from mere possibility). Furthermore, plaintiff has presented no additional evidence to rebut defense expert Shealy, who concluded, with a reasonable degree of engineering certainty, that a lower binding setting would not have prevented plaintiff’s knee injury because plaintiff’s bindings were not designed to protect against tibial plateau fractures. Consequently, plaintiff fails to establish that but for defendant’s negligence in setting his ski bindings [**14] too high, plaintiff’s injury would not have occurred. See Abrams v. City of Chicago, 211 Ill. 2d 251, 258, 811 N.E.2d 670, 285 Ill. Dec. 183 (2004) (a defendant’s conduct was only a material element and substantial factor in bringing about the injury if, absent that conduct, the injury would not have occurred).
[*P23] Moreover, plaintiff’s reliance on cases addressing the admissibility of expert testimony is misplaced, as defendant does not dispute that Dr. Fabian’s expert opinion regarding causation would be admissible at trial. See Torres v. Midwest Development Co., 383 Ill. App. 3d 20, 889 N.E.2d 654, 321 Ill. Dec. 389 (2008); Wojcik v. City of Chicago, 299 Ill. App. 3d 964, 702 N.E.2d 303, 234 Ill. Dec. 137 (1998); Geers v. Brichta, 248 Ill. App. 3d 398, 618 N.E.2d 531, 187 Ill. Dec. 940 (1993); Mesick v. Johnson, 141 Ill. App. 3d 195, 490 N.E.2d 20, 95 Ill. Dec. 547 (1986). Here, no reasonable inferences can be drawn to establish that but for defendant’s negligence the incident would not have occurred. See McCraw v. Cegielski, 287 Ill. App. 3d 871, 873, 680 N.E.2d 394, 223 Ill. Dec. 661 (1996). Because the record presents no genuine issue of material fact, defendant was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.
[*P25] Based on the foregoing, we affirm the judgment of the circuit court of Cook County.
Linda Timmer, et al., Respondents, vs. Shamineau Adventures, Appellant.
COURT OF APPEALS OF MINNESOTA
2005 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 576
December 13, 2005, Filed
NOTICE: [*1] THIS OPINION WILL BE UNPUBLISHED AND MAY NOT BE CITED EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY MINNESOTA STATUTES.
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Review denied by Timmer v. Shamineau Adventures, 2006 Minn. LEXIS 73 (2006)
Subsequent appeal at, Remanded by Timmer v. Shamineau Adventures, 2007 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 351 (2007)
PRIOR HISTORY: Morrison County District Court. File No. CX-03-261. Hon. John H. Scherer.
COUNSEL: For Appellant: Robert G. Haugen, Jason M. Hill, Johnson & Lindberg, P.A., Minneapolis, MN.
For Respondent: Luke M. Seifert, Michael, T. Milligan, Heidi N. Thoennes, Quinlivan & Hughes, P.A., St. Cloud, MN.
JUDGES: Considered and decided by Willis, Presiding Judge, Randall, Judge, and Huspeni, Judge. 1
1 Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.
OPINION BY: RANDALL
This is an appeal from the district court order denying a motion for JNOV but granting a new trial on damages and a conditional remittitur of the damages awarded for future pain and suffering. After respondents accepted the conditional remittitur, appellant brought this appeal contending: (a) it is entitled to a Schwartz hearing based on a juror’s allegations of misconduct in reaching the verdict; (b) it is entitled to an unconditional new trial because of juror misconduct on the face of the special [*2] verdict form; (c) it is entitled to a new trial on liability due to the erroneous admission into evidence of an unqualified expert’s opinions; and (d) the court erred in allowing respondent’s expert to testify to opinions undisclosed prior to trial and denying appellant’s request for a continuance. Respondents filed a notice of review arguing that the conditional remittitur was unsupported by the evidence. We affirm on all issues.
This appeal stems from a tort action brought by respondents Linda Timmer and her husband Jere Timmer (collectively “respondents”) against appellant Shamineau Adventures. Appellant is one of five subdivisions that are collectively referred to as “Shamineau Ministries.” Appellant’s subdivision consists of a ropes course that includes various elements and obstacle courses. One of the elements of the ropes course is a zip line that consists of a 300-foot cable that is secured to a tower structure on a hill, traverses a valley, and ends at a tree located at a lower point on the opposite side. The cable drapes across the valley, and gradually rises as it nears the landing area in front of the tree to which it is attached. The cable is threaded through [*3] a pulley system and a lanyard rope is attached to the pulley. At the end of the lanyard is a carabiner that has a hinged gate on one side that is spring loaded. A zip line rider is specially body-harnessed by camp personnel, and connected to another carabiner clip attached to the harness. Both carabiners are equipped with screw-lock devices and spring tension hinges that prevent them from opening accidentally.
To ride the zip line, the rider’s harness carabiner is attached to the zip line carabiner. The rider then steps from the higher end platform, gliding down the cable across the valley. The rider slows as the calibrated slack in the cable and the resulting incline brings the rider to a slow landing on the gradual upslope of the lower end hill. The harness carabiner is then disconnected from the zip line by an assistant stationed at the lower end of the hill, and the pulley and lanyard assembly is walked back up to the higher end platform by the rider using a tow-rope attached to the lanyard.
In October 2001, a group of students and teachers from the Little Falls School District went to Camp Shamineau. Included in the group was Timmer, a special education teacher in the Little [*4] Falls School District. On October 11, while “roving” the ropes course and generally supervising her students, Timmer was approached by Troy Zakariasen, the ropes course director. Zakariasen asked Timmer if she would be willing to help uncouple students at the receiving end of the zip line while he briefly attended to other duties. Timmer agreed, and Matthew Stanghelle, a Shamineau staff member, showed Timmer how to unhook the zip line riders. Stanghelle spent approximately five minutes with Timmer, showing her the procedure by demonstrating on incoming zip line riders. Stanghelle then left the landing area to assist other students, teachers, and staff. Although Timmer had been to Camp Shamineau three or four times prior to October 11, she had never attended any training relative to the ropes course, which typically includes two to three weeks of training riders.
After Stanghelle left, the next rider on the zip line was 14-year old Tracie Boser. When Boser arrived at the landing area, Timmer grabbed Boser and tried to unhook her from the harness. As Timmer tried to unscrew the safety harness, Boser began drifting backwards. Timmer instinctively grabbed onto Boser to prevent her from [*5] coasting back to the sender, but Timmer was unable to maintain her footing. Boser then glided back toward the middle of the zip line with Timmer hanging onto Boser’s harness. When they reached the mid-point, approximately 25 feet above the valley, Timmer was unable to maintain her grip on the harness, and she fell to the ground, sustaining serious injuries. Timmer brought this tort action alleging negligence on the part of Shamineau Adventures. Jere Timmer filed a claim for loss of consortium.
Four days prior to the commencement of trial, respondents served upon appellant a memorandum issued by Richard Gauger, an engineer retained by respondents to serve as an expert witness. Gauger’s memorandum concluded that, in his opinion, the landing area of the zip line was unsafe, and that the landing area should involve one or more trained persons working together to assist the rider in arriving safely. Appellants moved for an order excluding Gauger’s new opinions, or, in the alternative, for a continuance due to the untimely disclosure of the new evidence. The district court denied the motion, holding that the issue of the landing area could reasonably have been anticipated in light of the [*6] nature of the case.
A jury trial was held from June 21, 2004, through June 29, 2004. At trial, Gauger testified that he has a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, and that he is a consulting engineer licensed as a professional engineer. Gauger also testified that his work history included assisting with design and development of construction projects, and some investigative work with regard to recreational activities. Appellant objected to Gauger’s testimony on the basis that he was unqualified as an expert witness. The district court overruled the objection, and Gauger testified in accordance with his June 17 memorandum, that the zip line was dangerous because the slope exceeded the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards for ramps and other standards typically used on construction projects.
The jury heard extensive testimony concerning Timmer’s injuries and her present physical condition. Dr. Joseph Nessler testified that as a result of her accident, Timmer suffered “multiple injuries, including pelvic fractures, sacral or tailbone fractures, spinal fracture, left femur fracture, left tibia fracture, and right calcaneus fracture.” Dr. Nessler, Dr. Jeffrey Gerdes, [*7] and Dr. Gregory Schlosser all testified that Timmer suffers from various permanent disabilities as a result of the accident, and all agreed she will have problems lifting, bending, stooping, twisting, and standing. Timmer testified that she is medically disabled and was forced to retire from teaching as a result of the fall.
On the verdict form, the jury determined that appellant was 60% at fault and Timmer was 40% at fault. The jury awarded appellant damages in excess of $ 4.5 million, and after applying the mathematical formula called for by the jury allocation of fault, the net verdict to respondents was $ 2,783,949. Shortly thereafter, James Albrecht, a juror in the case, sent a letter to the district court and the attorneys for both parties. Albrecht stated that the jury had made a mistake in selecting the damages. According to Albrecht, the jury had selected the damages believing that respondents would recover 20% of the damages awarded; deriving this figure by taking appellant’s 60% fault and subtracting respondent’s 40% fault. Appellant subsequently moved the district court for a Schwartz 2 hearing based on Albrecht’s letter. The district court first ruled the letter [*8] inadmissible, and then denied the motion for a Schwartz hearing.
2 See Schwartz v. Minneapolis Suburban Bus Co., 258 Minn. 325, 104 N.W.2d 301 (1960).
Following the district court’s order denying the request for a Schwartz hearing, appellant moved for a new trial and JNOV. The district court denied the motion for JNOV, but granted a new trial on damages and a conditional remittitur of the damages awarded for future pain and suffering, reducing the amount of the recoverable verdict from $ 3,000,000 to $ 1,650,000. Respondents accepted the conditional remittitur. Shamineau appealed. Respondents then served and filed their own notice of review objecting to the remittitur.
Appellant argues that it is entitled to a Schwartz hearing based on Albrecht’s letter stating that the jury had made a mistake in selecting the damages. [HN1] “The standard of review for denial of a Schwartz hearing is abuse of discretion.” State v. Church, 577 N.W.2d 715, 721 (Minn. 1998). [*9]
In Schwartz, the supreme court established a method for inquiring into allegations of juror misconduct. 258 Minn. at 328, 104 N.W.2d at 303. A Schwartz hearing may also be conducted to correct a clerical error in a jury verdict. Erickson by Erickson v. Hammermeister, 458 N.W.2d 172, 175 (1990), review denied (Minn. Sept. 20, 1990).
[HN2] Although trial courts are urged to be fairly lenient in the granting of Schwartz hearings, their purpose is to determine juror misconduct, such as outside influence improperly brought to bear on jurors. The purpose of a Schwartz hearing does not include the correction of a miscomprehension by a juror or jurors. The assertion that the jury was confused and did not understand the effect of the verdict has been rejected as a basis for a Schwartz hearing. Jurors may not impeach their verdict on the basis that they did not understand the legal effect of that verdict.
Senf v. Bolluyt, 419 N.W.2d 645, 647 (Minn. App. 1988) (quoting Frank v. Frank, 409 N.W.2d 70, 72-73 (Minn. App. 1987), review denied (Minn. Sept. 30, 1987)), review denied (Minn. Apr. 15, 1988).
[*10] Here, the district court reviewed the letter for purposes of the Schwartz hearing motion, and concluded that:
There has been no evidence of juror misconduct in this matter. The evidence received did not relate to actions outside of the deliberations that would constitute misconduct. On the contrary, the evidence reveals that during deliberations the jury may have misunderstood or misapplied the law as presented in the jury instructions. However, under Minnesota cases, this does not constitute juror misconduct such that a Schwartz hearing must be held.
The record supports the district court’s conclusion that there were no clerical errors and no evidence of jury misconduct. Albrecht’s letter fails to demonstrate evidence of juror misconduct, but, instead, indicates that the jury may have misapplied the law. The district court properly denied appellant’s request for a Schwartz hearing. See Senf, 419 N.W.2d at 648.
For purposes of the motion, appellant concedes that even if Albrecht is correct and that the jury misunderstood the instructions regarding comparative fault, that “misunderstanding” is not grounds for a new trial. Instead, appellant [*11] argues that the letter is evidence of a “compromise verdict,” and that a compromise verdict is grounds for a new trial. Appellant argues that because a compromise verdict constitutes juror misconduct, it is entitled to a Schwartz hearing.
[HN3] A “compromise” verdict occurs when the jury awards an amount that reflects a compromise between liability and proven damages. See Schore v. Mueller, 290 Minn. 186, 190, 186 N.W.2d 699, 702 (1971). When there is an indication that inadequate damages were awarded because the jury compromised between the right of recovery and the amount of damages, a new trial on damages is appropriate. Seim v. Garavalia, 306 N.W.2d 806, 813 (Minn. 1981).
We agree with the district court that [HN4] just a claim that the jury misapplied jury instructions in apportioning damages does not equate to a compromised verdict. Case law uniformly revolves around allegations by plaintiffs that damages were compromised too low based on proven liability. See, e.g., Vermes v. American Dist. Tele. Co., 312 Minn. 33, 44, 251 N.W.2d 101, 106-07 (Minn. 1977) (holding that because the jury simply misunderstood proof of damages and gave [*12] an inadequate award, it was not a compromise verdict);Schore, 290 Minn. at 190, 186 N.W.2d at 702 (remanding for a new trial because the jury’s award of damages was not supported by the evidence in light of the plaintiff’s proven damages and represented a compromise verdict); Kloos v. Soo Line R.R., 286 Minn. 172, 177-78, 176 N.W.2d 274, 278 (1970) (ordering a new trial on the basis that the jury’s award of inadequate damages constituted a compromise verdict). This case is novel. Appellant does not argue that the damages were inadequate, but rather argues that the damages awarded were in excess of the jury’s intent. We conclude that even if the jury did not fully grasp the mathematics of comparative negligence (an unfortunate but true syndrome that goes back decades to the origins of comparative negligence), plaintiffs and defendants have understood for all those years that if even after careful argument by attorneys in their closing arguments, juries do not exactly “get” comparative negligence. It is not “misconduct” and does not call for a Schwartz hearing.
Appellant next argues that in light of Albrecht’s letter indicating that the jury made [*13] a mistake in apportioning damages, its due process rights to a fair trial were violated. Appellant argues that except for purposes of the Schwartz hearing motion, the district court held that under Minn. R. Evid. 606(b), 3 the letter was inadmissible for purposes relative to other post-trial motions, such as a motion for a new trial, remittitur, or JNOV. Appellant argues that it cannot be granted a new trial for juror misconduct without the excluded evidence, and a Schwartz hearing is only available when admissible evidence of juror misconduct is already in the record to justify the proceeding. Thus, appellant contends that the district court’s ruling of inadmissibility under Rule 606(b) denied it the opportunity to prove jury misconduct through a Schwartz hearing, thereby depriving appellant of the opportunity to develop a record supporting its right to a new trial.
3 Minn. R. Evid. 606(b) states:
[HN5] Upon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment, a juror may not testify as to any matter or statement occurring during the course of the jury’s deliberations or to the effect of anything upon that or any other juror’s mind or emotions as influencing the juror to assent or to dissent from the verdict or indictment or concerning the juror’s mental processes in connection therewith, except that a juror may testify on the question whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury’s attention, or whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror, or as to any threats of violence or violent acts brought to bear on jurors, from whatever source, to reach a verdict. Nor may a juror’s affidavit or evidence of any statement by the juror concerning a matter about which the juror would be precluded from testifying be received for these purposes.
[*14] [HN6] The Minnesota Supreme Court set forth the rationale for the exclusion of juror testimony about a verdict or the deliberation process. See State v. Pederson, 614 N.W.2d 724, 731 (Minn. 2000). In Pederson, the supreme court explained: “The rationale for the exclusion of juror testimony about a verdict or the deliberation process is to protect juror deliberations and thought processes from governmental and public scrutiny and to ensure the finality and certainty of verdicts.” Id. The court further explained the rationale of rule 606(b) by noting the concern that jurors be protected from harassment by counsel after the verdict. Id. These are legitimate public policy concerns that support Minn. R. Evid. 606(b). The accepted fact that from time to time juries make mathematical mistakes in rendering their verdict does not rise to the constitutional level of a due process violation of a party’s right to a fair trial. In essence, this second argument of appellant is a remake of the first argument that there was a compromise verdict. Since we conclude there was not a compromise verdict, the judge properly did not order a Schwartz hearing based on either theory.
Appellant argues that it is entitled to an unconditional new trial due to evidence of juror misconduct on the face of the special verdict form. Appellant argues that the special verdict form is evidence of misconduct because, appellant claims, certain listed damages are irreconcilable. Specifically, appellant points out that: (1) the jury awarded Linda Timmer $ 3,000,000 in future pain and suffering, but only $ 150,000 in past pain and suffering; and (2) Linda Timmer’s award of $ 150,000 for past pain and suffering is the same as Jere Timmer’s past loss of consortium. Appellant asserts that the only logical explanation for the jury’s irrational damages awards is that the jury carefully attempted to engineer respondents’ net recovery, which constitutes misconduct.
[HN7] Anew trial may be granted when, among other things, the verdict is not supported by the evidence, errors of law occurred at the trial, or the damages awarded are excessive. Minn. R. Civ. P. 59.01. The district court has the discretion to grant a new trial and this court will not disturb its decision absent a clear abuse of that discretion. Halla Nursery, Inc. v. Baumann-Furrie & Co., 454 N.W.2d 905, 910 (Minn. 1990). [*16] An appellate court will uphold the denial of a motion for a new trial unless the verdict “is manifestly and palpably contrary to the evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to the verdict.” ZumBerge v. N. States Power Co., 481 N.W.2d 103, 110 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. Apr. 29, 1992).
The district court did take note of the difference between future and past pain and granted appellant’s motion for a new trial on the issue of future pain and suffering if respondents declined the court’s remittitur reducing that portion of the verdict from $ 3,000,000 to $ 1,650,000. However, respondents accepted the court’s remittitur, and that benefited appellants in the amount of $ 1,350,000. As an appellate court on review, we cannot now conclude that the remaining verdict is too high as a matter of law. Appellant is not entitled to a new trial based on its allegation that jury misconduct in calculating damages denied it of its right to a fair trial.
Appellant argues that under the Frye-Mack, Daubert, and Kumho standards for expert testimony, it is entitled to a new trial because the district court erroneously admitted Gauger’s expert [*17] testimony. 4 [HN8] The decision to admit expert opinion testimony is within the broad discretion of the district court. Dunshee v. Douglas, 255 N.W.2d 42, 47 (Minn. 1977). To obtain a new trial based on evidentiary error, a claimant must show not only that the ruling was erroneous, but also that it resulted in prejudice. Kroning v. State Farm Auto Ins. Co., 567 N.W.2d 42, 46 (Minn. 1997).
4 See Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923); State v. Mack, 292 N.W.2d 764 (Minn. 1980); Daubert v. Merrel Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 113 S. Ct. 2786, 125 L. Ed. 2d 469 (1993); Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 119 S. Ct. 1167, 143 L. Ed. 2d 238 (1999).
[HN9] Recently, the Minnesota Supreme Court reaffirmed its adherence to the Frye-Mack standard. See Goeb v. Tharaldson, 615 N.W.2d 800, 813-14 (Minn. 2000). 5 Under the Frye-Mack standard, a novel scientific theory may be admitted if two requirements are satisfied. [*18] Id. at 814. But if the expert’s opinions do not relate to “novel scientific methods,” a Frye-Mack analysis is not necessary. See State v. DeShay, 645 N.W.2d 185, 191 (Minn. App. 2002) (holding that a Frye/Mack analysis was not necessary where expert testimony based on the ten-point gang-identification criteria did not constitute novel scientific evidence), aff’d 669 N.W.2d 878 (Minn. 2003).
5 The court in Goeb also refused to adopt the principals of Daubert and its progeny, and, therefore, appellant’s reliance on the Daubert is misguided. 615 N.W.2d at 814-15.
Based on the scope of Gauger’s testimony, his opinions related to the safety of the zip line landing site, not the actual zip line itself, as claimed by appellant. An expert opinion as to whether the zip line landing area was unsafe, and whether there is something in the condition of the work site that is inherently dangerous does not involve a novel scientific theory. [*19] Gauger’s expert opinion testimony did not constitute “novel scientific testimony” and a complete Frye/Mack analysis was not necessary.
Although a Frye/Mack analysis was not necessary to be admissible, Gauger’s testimony must at least meet the requirements of Minn. R. Evid. 702. This rule provides [HN10] “if scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.” Minn. R. Evid. 702.
Appellant contends that the district court abused its discretion by admitting Gauger’s testimony, claiming Gauger was not qualified to be an expert witness. We affirm the district court. The district court found that: (1) Gauger is a professional engineer and has completed investigative work involving recreational facilities; (2) Gauger has reviewed hundreds of sites for safety purposes; and (3) Gauger has a background and familiarity with work sites and recreational facilities such as playgrounds and the Camp Snoopy amusement park at the Mall of America. The record [*20] reflects that Gauger visited the accident site on more than one occasion and viewed the zip line and landing area in use. The record reflects that Gauger reviewed a manual from the camp and criteria developed by the Association of Challenge Course Technology. Gauger testified extensively as to his opinion that the landing area was unsafe, and explained his reasoning. We find there was proper foundation for Gauger’s expert opinions, and the district court properly admitted his testimony.
Appellant argues that it is entitled to a new trial because the district court failed to grant appellant’s motion for a continuance after respondents’ late disclosure of Gauger’s opinion testimony. [HN11] When a district court denies a continuance at trial, this court reviews the ruling for a clear abuse of discretion. Dunshee v. Douglas, 255 N.W.2d 42, 45 (Minn. 1977). Denial of a continuance shall be reversed only if the decision prejudiced the outcome of the trial. Chahla v. City of St. Paul, 507 N.W.2d 29, 31-32 (Minn. App. 1993), review denied (Minn. Dec. 14, 1993).
The record shows that, four days prior to the commencement of trial, respondents served [*21] upon appellant a memorandum issued by Gauger stating his opinions that the landing area was unsafe. In denying appellant’s motion for a new trial on the basis of the district court’s refusal to grant a continuance, the district court stated that “the late or new disclosures regarding Mr. Gauger’s testimony were really nothing more that a re-disclosure of what had previously been disclosed.” The court further noted that:
Previous disclosures indicated that Mr. Gauger felt that the workplace or landing site was unsafe because Linda Timmer was required to stand on a slope. This opinion did not change. The only disclosure that appeared to be at all new and different was a reference to the ADA slope percentage recommendations, and that Mr. Gauger adopted this slope percentage as a reasonable standard.
In addressing appellant’s claim that it could not respond to the new information because of the fact that its expert had already been deposed and the testimony was established, the court stated:
the fact of the matter is that [appellant's] expert simply expressed the opinion that the zip line was safe and reasonable, and that the design of the landing area was necessary for [*22] the zip line to function properly. He did not offer any opinion as to what would have been a safe grade for the landing area of the zip line. If there had been a disagreement as to the actual percentage of slope or the standard to be applied, then there may be some basis for the argument. However, that is clearly not the situation at hand. Additionally, [appellant] was aware that the slope grade of the landing area was a basis for the negligence claim prior to the deposition of its expert witness, Bart Broderson. [Appellant] had the opportunity to ask Mr. Broderson his opinion relative to the degree or percentage slope of the landing area. No inquiry was made. [Appellant] cannot later claim prejudice when the subsequent disclosure differed little from the prior disclosure.
The record supports the district court’s decision. We conclude the district court properly denied appellant’s motion for a continuance.
As is their right, even though respondents agreed to the conditional remittitur, once appellant challenged the verdict, respondents cross-reviewed on the issue of the remittitur. Respondents argue that the district court abused its discretion by granting a conditional [*23] remittitur of the damages awarded for future pain and suffering. The district court did reduce the amount of recoverable damages by approximately $ 1,350,000. Respondents argue that reduction was uncalled for in light of the medical testimony.
[HN12] Generally, a district court has broad discretion in determining if damages are excessive and whether the cure is a remittitur. Hanson v. Chicago, Rock Island & Pac. R. Co., 345 N.W.2d 736, 739 (Minn. 1984). When a district court has examined the jury’s verdict and outlined the reasons for its decision on a motion for remittitur, an appellate court is unlikely to tamper with that decision absent an abuse of discretion. Sorenson v. Kruse, 293 N.W.2d 56, 62-63 (Minn. 1980).
In ordering the conditional remittitur, the district court explained that:
The jury awarded $ 150,000 for past pain and suffering. Approximately 2.7 years had transpired from the date of the injury to the date of trial. Therefore, the $ 150,000 award equates to $ 55,555.56 per year for her past pain and suffering. On the other hand, the jury was advised that Linda Timmer had a 29-year life expectancy. The award of $ 3,000,000 for future [*24] pain and suffering, divided among those 29 years, would result in an annual award of damages for future pain and suffering in the amount of $ 103,448.28.
The district court addressed all the of the doctors’ expert testimony on future pain and suffering, and concluded that “although the medical testimony spoke of the need for future care or treatment, and the possibility of some degeneration, there was no specific testimony regarding future pain and suffering associated with any future surgery, care, or degeneration. Thus, the district court concluded that the drastic difference between the annual damages for past pain and suffering and future pain and suffering were not supported by the record.
In support of their claim that the remittitur was an abuse of discretion, respondents cited an exhaustive list of problems or potential problems and potential problems that Timmer will experience as a direct result of the accident. Respondents present a good argument. The record does not jump out on appellate review, as a record where a lack of a remittitur would be a miscarriage of justice. But, as noted, the decision to grant or deny a conditional remittitur is a highly discretionary [*25] decision within the purview of the district judge’s examination and weighing of the evidence. We conclude the district court’s conditional remittitur was reasoned and supported by the record.
Jenish v. Monarch Velo Llc dba Catlike USA, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34120; CCH Prod. Liab. Rep. P17,754 (E.D. Mich. S.D. 2007)Posted: October 7, 2014
Tracy Ann Jenish, Plaintiff, vs. Monarch Velo Llc dba Catlike USA, a Texas Corporation, The Kreb Cycle, a New York Corporation, and Catlike Sport Components SL, a Spanish Corporation, Defendants.
Case No. 05-CV-73648
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN, SOUTHERN DIVISION
2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34120; CCH Prod. Liab. Rep. P17,754
May 9, 2007, Decided
May 9, 2007, Filed
CORE TERMS: helmet, catlike, bicycle, safety standard, summary judgment, head injuries, consumer, warranty, material fact, brain, acceleration, testing, seller, bike, Bicycle Helmets Final Rule, entitled to judgment, traumatic, hematoma, usa, Consumer Product Safety Act, matter of law, genuine issue, implied warranty, proximate cause, manufactured, manufacturer, distributor, attenuation, deposition, violating
COUNSEL: [*1] For Tracy Ann Jenish, Plaintiff: Lawrence S. Katkowsky, LEAD ATTORNEY, Lawrence S. Katkowsky Assoc., Bingham Farms, MI.
For Kreb Cycle, Defendant: Matthew A. Brauer, LEAD ATTORNEY, Rutledge, Manion, (Detroit), Detroit, MI.
JUDGES: GEORGE CARAM STEEH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
OPINION BY: GEORGE CARAM STEEH
OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT THE KREB CYCLE’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DOCUMENT # 38)
Before the court in this product liability lawsuit is a motion for summary judgment brought by defendant The Kreb Cycle, a New York seller of bicycle equipment, in which it asserts it is entitled to judgment on all counts in the complaint. 1 Because the court agrees that plaintiff has not raised a question of material fact as to causation of her injuries by an allegedly defective bicycle helmet, defendant’s motion is granted as set forth below.
1 The other defendants to this action have not filed answers to the complaint.
Plaintiff Tracy Jenish was riding with a bicycling [*2] club on Wing Lake Road in the area of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan on September 26, 2002, when she fell off her bike and suffered serious bodily injuries, including injuries to her head. She was wearing a helmet called a “Catlike Kompact,” manufactured by defendant Catlike Sport Components SL, a Spanish corporation, distributed by defendant Monarch Velo LLC, a Texas corporation 2, and sold to the plaintiff by movant-defendant Kreb Cycle, a New York corporation.
2 Answers to the complaint by the remaining defendants have not been filed, and defendant Kreb Cycle states in its motion that the other defendants are in default. The docket reflects that a clerk’s entry of default was filed as to defendant Monarch Velo, L.L.C. on June 2, 2006.
The Kreb Cycle (hereinafter “defendant”) started carrying these helmets after its owner attended a trade show in Las Vegas, where a model of the Catlike Kompact helmet was on display. Defendant ordered the helmets from Monarch Velo LLC, d/b/a “Catlike USA,” a Texas distributor. [*3] The helmets came with the manufacturer’s label stating they complied with U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC”) standards. Although there are no records of the sale, defendant does not dispute that it sold the helmet to plaintiff. Plaintiff’s recollection, according to her deposition, is that she called in with a credit card or ordered it online, at some point during the year preceding the accident.
In 2003, some months after plaintiff’s accident, the Catlike Kompact helmet was the subject of a voluntary manufacturer recall. Defendant has produced a copy of the CPSC’s announcement of this recall, which is reproduced below in its entirety, with the exception of the generic CPSC headings and contact numbers:
CPSC, Monarch Velo, LLC doing business as Catlike USA Announce Recall of Bike Helmets
Washington, D.C. — The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announces the following recall in voluntary cooperation with the firm below. Consumers should stop using recalled products immediately unless otherwise instructed.
Name of product: Catlike Kompact TM Bike Helmets
Distributor: Monarch Velo, LLC, doing business [*4] as Catlike USA, of Houston, Texas
Hazard: The helmets fail impact testing required under CPSC’s safety standard for bicycle helmets, violating the Consumer Product Safety Act.
Incidents/Injuries: None reported.
Description: This recall involves Catlike Kompact TM adult bicycle helmets. The helmets were sold in two sizes (small/medium and large/extra large) and various colors. The sizing label inside the helmets reads “Kompact” and “SM/MD” or “LG/XL.”
Sold at: Bicycle shops nationwide sold the helmets from March 2002 through February 2003 for about $ 130.
Manufactured in: Spain
Remedy: Contact Monarch Velo for information on receiving a free replacement helmet.
Consumer Contact: Contact Monarch Velo toll-free at (877) 228-5646 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday or visit the firm’s web site at http://www.catlike-usa.com
Media Contact: Chris Watson at (877) 228-5646.
Exhibit D to Defendant’s Motion. Plaintiff obtained a replacement Catlike helmet after announcement of the recall.
This action was filed in federal court on the basis of diversity of citizenship in September 2005. [*5] Plaintiff’s First Amended Complaint, filed September 29, 2005, makes a common claim against all three defendants, asserting negligence, gross negligence, and breach of warranty in the design, manufacture, and distribution of an unmerchantable, “untested” bicycle helmet that failed to protect against injury to the head.
STANDARD FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) empowers the court to render summary judgment “forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” See Redding v. St. Eward, 241 F.3d 530, 532 (6th Cir. 2001). The Supreme Court has affirmed the court’s use of summary judgment as an integral part of the fair and efficient administration of justice. The procedure is not a disfavored procedural shortcut. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986); see also Cox v. Kentucky Dept. of Transp., 53 F.3d 146, 149 (6th Cir. 1995).
The [*6] standard for determining whether summary judgment is appropriate is “‘whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.’” Amway Distributors Benefits Ass’n v. Northfield Ins. Co., 323 F.3d 386, 390 (6th Cir. 2003) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986)). The evidence and all reasonable inferences therefrom must be construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986); Redding, 241 F.3d at 532 (6th Cir. 2001). “[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986) (emphasis in original); see also National Satellite Sports, Inc. v. Eliadis, Inc., 253 F.3d 900, 907 (6th Cir. 2001). [*7]
If the movant establishes by use of the material specified in Rule 56(c) that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the opposing party must come forward with “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” First Nat’l Bank v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 270, 88 S. Ct. 1575, 20 L. Ed. 2d 569 (1968); see also McLean v. 988011 Ontario, Ltd., 224 F.3d 797, 800 (6th Cir. 2000). Mere allegations or denials in the non-movant’s pleadings will not meet this burden, nor will a mere scintilla of evidence supporting the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 252. Rather, there must be evidence on which a jury could reasonably find for the non-movant. McLean, 224 F.3d at 800 (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).
Kreb Cycle asserts in its motion that it is entitled to judgment as to all three of plaintiff’s claims: negligence, gross negligence, and breach of warranty. In response, plaintiff asserts it is “only relying on the implied warranty of fitness and merchantability as to this Defendant and will not, therefore, respond to [*8] Defendant’s arguments as to negligence and gross negligence.” Accordingly, judgment is hereby granted for Kreb Cycle as to plaintiff’s negligence and gross negligence claims.
The sole claim remaining as to this defendant is plaintiff’s breach of warranty claim. Plaintiff concedes defendant made no express warranty regarding this helmet. Accordingly, proceeding on a cause of action for breach of an implied warranty, plaintiff asserts that she has established a prima facie case of breach of implied warranty under Michigan law, 3 citing to this court’s case of Konstantinov v. Findlay Ford Lincoln Mercury, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 85836, 2006 WL 3299487. As set forth in that case, under the Michigan Tort Reform Act, effective in 1996,
(6) In a product liability action, a seller other than a manufacturer is not liable for harm allegedly caused by the product unless either of the following is true:
(a) The seller failed to exercise reasonable care, including breach of any implied warranty, with respect to the product and that failure was a proximate cause of the person’s injuries.
(b) The seller made an express warranty as to the product, the product failed to conform to the warranty, and the [*9] failure to conform to the warranty was a proximate cause of the person’s harm.
Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 600.2947(6).
3 Although the retailer was a New York seller, neither party asserts applicable law other than that of Michigan.
Defendant’s argument for summary judgment on this claim is that plaintiff has not come forward with any evidence of a specific defect in the helmet, and has not drawn any kind of causal connection between the alleged defect and her head injuries. It cites to Mascarenas v. Union Carbide, 196 Mich. App. 240, 249, 492 N.W.2d 512 (1992) for the elements of a product liability case under Michigan law: proof that the defendant supplied a defective product, and that the defect proximately caused the plaintiff’s injury. Defendant argues that plaintiff relies only on the helmet’s later recall, disclosed in a 5/22/03 CPSC press release (stating that the recall was occurring “in voluntary cooperation with” the U.S. distributor) and conclusory statements [*10] by an expert, neither of which establish a question of material fact as to proximate cause. 4
4 Defendant also addresses plaintiff’s weak assertion, in answers to interrogatories, that defendant “had a duty to determine whether the model helmet in question did in fact meet CPSC standards.” As defendant argues, there is no such duty required by Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 600.2947(6), set forth above.
The court agrees with the defendant. Although precedent such as Mills v. Curioni, Inc., 238 F. Supp. 2d 876, 886 (E.D. Mich. 2002) and the very recent decision in Coleman v. Maxwell Shoe Co., 475 F. Supp. 2d 685, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11513, 2007 WL 551608 (E.D. Mich. 2007) lend support to defendant’s argument concerning non-manufacturing sellers and the need for a showing of negligence in failing to detect a product’s defect, this case must be dismissed whether or not such evidence is required.
Plaintiff’s expert’s initial report, created by Tyler A. Kress, Ph.D. in Knoxville, Tennessee, dated [*11] October 6, 2006, summarily lists plaintiff’s injuries following the accident. It then lists all of the expert’s qualifications, his fees, and the records he reviewed. These are a 9/26/2002 CT scan of plaintiff’s head; the hospital’s discharge summary; a letter of April 3, 2003 by a Jon Wardner, M.D. stating plaintiff’s disability; the CPSC announcement of the helmet recall; and the plaintiff’s deposition. Dr. Kress also states that he met with the plaintiff. The remainder (and the entire substance) of his letter/report stated only a conclusion that a “defect” of the helmet was “directly related to the inadequacies of the Catlike Kompact bike helmet.”
Defendant then brought a motion, granted by the magistrate, for sanctions and to require a supplemental report by November 15, 2006, containing a “complete statement of all opinions to be expressed and the basis and reasons therefor…” A supplemental report was subsequently created by Dr. Kress. That report, dated November 15, 2006, is set forth below in its entirety:
Dear Mr. Katkowsky:
This is to supplement my report of October 6, 2006, regarding the above-styled cause.
1) Use: It is my opinion that it is foreseeable [*12] that some consumers will sustain a preventable head injury due to the impact performance (or lack thereof) of the helmet while using it in an appropriate manner as it is intended to be used.
Protective head gear and bicycle helmets have the ability to eliminate or greatly reduce traumatic head and brain injury when properly designed an manufactured. To ensure that bicycle helmets available in the consumer market adequately serve these goals, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has created safety standards for a range of criterion, including impact attenuation (CPSC’s Safety Standard for Bicycle Helmets Final Rule: 16 CFR Part 1203).
Bicycle helmets that have adequate impact attenuation performance, as set forth by the CPSC’s safety standards, and are used in an appropriate, reasonable, and correct manner are highly successful in preventing or greatly reducing traumatic head and brain injury. As found in a 1989 study by Thompson et al and explicitly cited in the CPSC’s Safety Standard for Bicycle Helmets Final Rule (16 CFR Part 1203, pg. 11713), riders with helmets had an 85% reduction in head injury risk, and 88% reduction in brain injury risk.
2) Reason for Injury: [*13] Ms. Jenish’s head injury is directly related to the inadequacies of the Catlike Kompact bike helmet.
The CPSC’s Safety Standard for Bicycle Helmets Final Rule (16 CFR Part 1203) explicitly establishes a performance test to “ensure that helmets will adequately protect the head in a collision” (pg. 11714). As a component of this performance test, helmets are required to not exceed a peak headform acceleration of 300 g for any impact. This pass/fail criterion of 300g or below is consistent with other standards such as the ANSI, Snell, and ASTM (CPSC’s Safety Standard for Bicycle Helmets Final Rule (16 CFR Part 1203, pg. 11714; Halstead 2001). The Catlike Kompact bike helmet is inadequate due to the fact that it failed impact standards that pertain to the design and performance of the helmet in a foreseeable use that may result in an impact to the head.
In the accident on September 26, 2002, Ms. Jenish hit a curb while riding her bicycle, was ejected, and impacted her head. She reported a loss of consciousness at the scene, and her relevant injuries include, but are not limited to, a traumatic brain injury and a subdural hematoma. Ms. Jenish sustained a direct impact to the back [*14] of the head (occipital region) which corresponds to a right occipatal scalp hematoma and the area of impact and failure seen in the helmet. Contact head impacts, such as this, result in predominantly linear acceleration of the head and brain, with small components of angular acceleration. Linear acceleration can product focal brain injuries, such as subdural hematomas, as well as concussions; as seen in Ms. Jenish.
The severity of the head injury sustained by Ms. Jenish is a direct result of the inability of the Catlike Kompact to comply to the CPSC’s safety standards. Subdural hematomas, similar to the one sustained by Ms. Jenish, are commonly caused by an impact to the occipital region (Kleiven 2003, Zhou et al 1995). The acceleration of the head in an occipital impact exceeded the values of what a reasonably designed and protective headgear would have given the wearer. Due to the failure of the Catlike Kompact bicycle helmet to comply to the CPSC’s impact safety standards Ms. Jenish’s head experienced higher acceleration values resulting in a more serious traumatic brain injury than would have been experienced if the helmet was compliant with the impact standards of the CPSC. [*15]
3) Design Defect: The helmet is inherently dangerous and defective by design in that it fails to comply with impact testing standards required under CPSC’s safety standard for bicycle helmets, violating the Consumer Product Safety Act.
The impact attenuation standards of the CPSC’s Safety Standard for Bicycle Helmets Final Rule (16 CFR Part 1203) was created in order to “ensure that helmets will adequately protect the head in a collision” (p. 11714). Failure to meet this standard endangers consumers by failing to prevent or reduce injury.
If you have any questions or need anything further please do not hesitate to contact me.
Tyler Kress, Ph.D., CIE
Exhibit I to Defendant’s Motion and Exhibit 2 to Plaintiff’s Response.
Defendant contends that all this report arguably establishes is that the helmet failed to “meet standards;” and that plaintiff has failed to connect that alleged, undefined defect to her injuries. As defendant asserts, there is no evaluation of items such as plaintiff’s speed at the time of the crash, location of impact, descriptive information concerning the object struck or other details of the accident. Defendant [*16] points to the serious injuries sustained by the plaintiff in the crash, including fractured vertebrae, a crushed rib cage, fractured collarbone, bulging spinal discs, and a collapsed lung, and asserts that helmets don’t rule out any and all head injuries, in any crash or at any speed, but serve to help protect against head injuries. Plaintiff has not identified the manufacturing or design elements of the helmet that led to voluntary recall nor has accident reconstruction tied these elements to the plaintiff’s injuries.
As discussed at oral argument, plaintiff has not brought forth any evidence of the reason the Catlike Kompact helmet failed impact testing. 5 All that has been presented is a one page press release from the CPSC, set forth above, including a statement that “[t]he helmets fail impact testing required under CPSC’s safety standard for bicycle helmets, violating the Consumer Product Safety Act.” Without additional information from the CPSC or any other source, or the results of any independent testing, it is the opinion of the court that Dr. Kress’ statement that “[t]he severity of the head injury sustained by Ms. Jenish is a direct result of the inability [*17] of the Catlike Kompact to comply to the CPSC’s safety standards” can be nothing but inadmissible speculation. Accordingly, it is the court’s determination that plaintiff has not produced evidence to raise a question of material fact regarding causation. Defendant’s motion will be granted.
5 Plaintiff has failed to identify any specific claimed defect, such as deficiencies in the suspension or cushioning system, hardness or thickness of the plastic, ventilation engineering, overall shape, the strapping mechanism, or any other particular aspects of the helmets in general, much less the helmet worn by plaintiff. Without knowing the defect that motivated a voluntary recall, and without testing of the helmet worn by plaintiff, it is impossible to conclude that a defect caused her injury.
Because plaintiff has failed to raise a question of material fact as to the proximate causation of her head injuries by an alleged defect in her bicycle helmet, summary judgment will enter as to all claims brought [*18] by the plaintiff against this defendant.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Dated: May 9, 2007
S/ George Caram Steeh
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Ana Maria Andia, M.D., Plaintiff, vs. Full Service Travel, a California corporation, Celebrity Cruises, Inc., a foreign corporation, and Arnott’s Lodge and Hike Adventures, a Hawaiian business of unknown structure, Defendants.
CASE NO. 06cv0437 WQH (JMA)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA
2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88247
November 29, 2007, Decided
November 29, 2007, Filed
CORE TERMS: hike, lava, station, terrain, falling, rock, summary judgment, hiking, slipping, uneven, duty of care, assumption of risk, cruise, inherent risk, trail, ship, warn, surface, viewing, passenger, excursion, admits, hiker, duty to warn, failure to warn, negating, minutes, causes of action, totally outside, gross negligence
COUNSEL: [*1] For Ana Maria Andia, an individual, Plaintiff: Harold M Hewell, LEAD ATTORNEY, Hewell Law Firm APC, San Diego, CA; Howard M Rubinstein, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Offices of Howard Rubinstein, Aspen, CO.
For Celebrity Cruises Inc, a foreign corporation, Arnotts Lodge and Hike Adventures, a Hawaiian business of unknown structure Defendants: Gregory Dean Hagen, Tammara N Tukloff, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Drath Clifford Murphy and Hagen, San Diego, CA.
JUDGES: WILLIAM Q. HAYES, United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: WILLIAM Q. HAYES
The matter before the Court is Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment, filed by Celebrity Cruises, Inc. and Arnott’s Lodge and Hike Adventures. (Doc. # 40).
Defendant Celebrity Cruises, Inc. (“Celebrity”) is engaged in the business of providing passenger cruises to various destinations. 1 UMF 1. Arnott’s Lodge and Hike Adventures (“Arnott’s”) guides transport cruise ship passengers to Volcanoes National Park (“the Park”), and provide knowledge about where the lava flow is each day. UMF 3. In order to view the active lava flow, individuals must hike over cooled lava. This terrain is rugged and natural, consisting of uneven surfaces. Id. at 4; DMF 4. The Hawaii Volcanoes [*2] National Park Rangers (“Rangers”) place reflective markers and cones on the lava to be used by hikers as reference points. UMF 7.
1 The parties each submitted a statement of facts with their submissions in support of and in opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment. The Court relies upon the facts from Defendants’ Alleged Undisputed Material Facts (“UMF”), which are undisputed by Plaintiff and supported by the cited evidence, and the facts from Plaintiff s Disputed Material Facts (“DMF”), which are undisputed by Defendants and supported by the cited evidence.
In November, 2005, Plaintiff Ana Maria Andia, M.D. was a passenger on Defendant Celebrity Cruises, Inc.’s (“Celebrity”) passenger cruise ship. Plaintiff is an experienced hiker. Andia Depo, 35: 23-25. On November 27, 2005, Plaintiff signed up to participate in a shore expedition known as the HL 15, the Kilauea Lava Viewing Hike, guided by Arnott’s. UMF 8. On November 27, 2005, there was total visibility for many miles in every direction. Id. at 5.
Prior to beginning the hike, Plaintiff read the description of the hike that states: “This tour involves approximately two to six miles of hiking over very sharp and uneven surfaces.” [*3] Id. at 10. Plaintiff also read, understood and executed the “Lava Hike Participant, Release and Acknowledgment of Risk” (“Agreement”), which provides, in relevant part:
I agree not to hold Arnott’s liable for any accident or injury beyond its control. The hike to the Lava is conducted at a brisk pace and requires physically fit participants in good health who can readily hike on varied surfaces and elevation changes for extended periods. I, as a participant, acknowledge that I am taking this activity of my own free will and that I will not hold Arnott’s responsible for any injury incurred while . . . I am hiking on the paved or natural surfaces of the National Park. . . . I understand by reading this waiver that Arnott’s guides will provide only broad direction and safety guidelines and that I remain responsible for the actual path hiked and whether I choose to take the risks with possibly still hot Lava Flows.
Id. at 11. Plaintiff also received and read a document entitled “Arnotts Adventures proudly presents: The Kilauea Lava Hike Adventure” (“Brochure”), which informed Plaintiff that she may need to turn around and head back to the Rangers station alone, and that she did not need [*4] a trail to return safely. Id. at 14.
Prior to beginning the hike, Arnott’s informed Plaintiff that the lava flow had changed and that the hike was going to be longer than anticipated for that day. Id. at 13. Arnott’s also informed all participants in the hike, including Plaintiff, that they had the option of staying at the Rangers station and not going on the hike, and that there would be four decision points during the hike at which hikers could turn around and head back to the Rangers station. Id. at 13, 18.
Prior to beginning the hike, Plaintiff understood that the marked trail was merely a preferred route, and that the trail was not necessary to safely return to the Rangers station. UMF 15; Andia Depo, 63:1-15. Plaintiff also understood that guides would not stay with her during the hike and that she might be returning to the Rangers station unaccompanied. UMF 15, 16; Andia Depo, 63: 1-15, 64:22-24. Plaintiff understood that the hike would be difficult and strenuous. Andia Depo, 52: 17-19
For the first 30 minutes of the hike, and through the first two decision points, the hike proceeded on paved surfaces. UMF 20. During this period, Plaintiff recalls seeing reflective tabs on the [*5] paved surface. Id. Plaintiff’s companion recalls seeing reflective tabs stuck to the rocks for 10-15 minutes of the hike after leaving the paved road. Plaintiff does not recall whether or not the reflective tabs were stuck to the rocks. Id. at 21. Approximately 45 minutes into the hike, and after approximately 15 minutes of walking on unpaved terrain, Plaintiff decided to return, unaccompanied by a guide, to the Rangers station. Id. at 22. About 15 minutes into her return, Plaintiff slipped on one of the rocks. When Plaintiff slipped, she twisted her ankle. Plaintiff then lifted her foot up, and hit the top of her foot on the lava rock. As a result of these events, Plaintiff fractured her foot. Id. at 23. Plaintiff testified that she then proceeded back to the Rangers station. Andia Depo, 86:22-87:14. The fall itself could have caused the fracture to become displaced and surgery may have been required regardless of whether Plaintiff attempted to walk out of the lava fields. UMF 25. Plaintiff was given the option of going to the ship’s doctor or the Hilo emergency room for treatment, and Plaintiff elected to receive treatment with the ship’s doctor. Id. at 24; Andia Depo, 89:15-25; [*6] 90:1-10. Plaintiff testified that, as a result of the fracture, she was confined to a wheel chair for a period of months, had to take time off of work, and suffers impaired balance. Id. 15:13-14.
On February 24, 2006, Plaintiff filed the First Amendment Complaint (“FAC”) against Defendants Full Service Travel, 2 Celebrity and Arnott’s. (Doc. # 3). The FAC alleges causes of action against Arnott’s for (1) negligence, on grounds that Arnott’s breached its duty of care to Plaintiff by failing to ensure the safety of participants in their excursions, and (2) negligence, on grounds that Arnott’s failed to warn Plaintiff of the known dangers and risks associated with the lava hike. The FAC alleges causes of action against Celebrity for (1) negligence, on grounds that Celebrity breached its duty of care to Plaintiff by failing to to offer reasonably reliable and safe excursions, and (2) negligence, on grounds that Celebrity failed to warn Plaintiff of the dangers and risks associated with the lava hike.
2 On October 5, 2006, Defendant Full Service Travel was dismissed from the case, with prejudice.
On August 18, 2007, Defendants filed the Motion for Summary Judgment, pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. [*7] Defendants claim they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law because (1) Arnott’s owed Plaintiff no duty to protect Plaintiff against the assumed risk of slipping and falling on the lava rock, (2) Arnott’s owed Plaintiff no duty to warn Plaintiff of the obvious risk of injury of slipping and falling on the lava rock, (3) Celebrity did not owe Plaintiff a duty to warn of the obvious risk of slipping and falling on lava rock, (4) the alleged negligence of Defendants did not cause Plaintiff’s injuries, and (5) the claim for punitive damages against Arnott’s is not warranted. After receiving evidence and briefing from the parties, the Court heard oral argument on November 9, 2007.
Standard of Review
Summary judgment is appropriate under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure where the moving party demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). A fact is material when, under the governing substantive law, it could affect the outcome of the case. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). A dispute over a material [*8] fact is genuine if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id.
A party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. If the moving party satisfies its initial burden, the nonmoving party must “go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)).
In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view all inferences drawn from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986). “Credibility determinations [and] the weighing of evidence . . . are jury functions, not those of a judge, [when] he is ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.
Choice of Law
The Court has jurisdiction over this action through diversity of citizenship, 28 U.S.C. section 1331. Federal courts exercising diversity jurisdiction must [*9] apply the substantive law of the state in which they are located, except on matters governed by the United States Constitution or federal statutes, or on procedural issues. Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938). The Complaint alleges causes of action in negligence for breach of due care and for failure to warn. The elements of the tort of negligence are essentially identical under California and Hawaii law. See White v. Sabatino, 415 F. Supp. 2d 1163, 1173 (USDC Haw. 2006); Ladd v. County of San Mateo, 12 Cal. 4th 913, 917, 50 Cal. Rptr. 2d 309, 911 P.2d 496 (1996). Furthermore, the doctrine of primary assumption of risk is a measure of a defendant’s duty of care, and is essentially identical under both Hawaii and California law. Yoneda v. Andrew Tom, 110 Haw. 367, 379, 133 P.3d 796 (2006); Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296, 314-15, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696 (1992).
I. Plaintiff’s Claims Against Arnott’s
Arnott’s contends that the risk of slipping, falling and injuring oneself on uneven, natural terrain is an inherent risk of lava hiking. Arnott’s contends that without this risk, the means of viewing this natural phenomenon would be severely limited to the general public. Arnott’s also contends that the evidence is uncontroverted that [*10] Arnott’s provided Plaintiff with written disclosures concerning the condition of the terrain, that guides would only give broad direction on the actual hike, that Plaintiff may need to turn around and head to the Rangers station alone, and that Plaintiff did not need a trail to return safely. Arnott’s contends that there is no triable issue of fact as to whether Arnott’s is liable for breach of its duty of care because the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies, negating any duty of Arnott’s to protect Plaintiff against the inherent risk of slipping and falling while lava hiking. Arnott’s contends that Plaintiff has failed to assert facts or introduce any evidence that demonstrates that the conduct of Arnott’s was totally outside the range of ordinary activity or that the conduct of Arnott’s increased Plaintiff’s risk of slipping and falling on the lava rock. Arnott’s also contends that there is no triable issue of fact as to whether Arnott’s is liable to Plaintiff for breach of the duty of Arnott’s to warn because the risk of slipping and falling on the natural terrain was equally obvious to Plaintiff and Arnott’s.
Plaintiff responds that the conduct of Arnott’s constituted [*11] gross negligence for the following reasons: Arnott’s did nothing to provide for Plaintiff’s safety on the lava hike once she determined she could not go forward; Arnott’s did nothing to warn Plaintiff of the dangers of approaching too closely to the coastline; Arnott’s did not ensure Plaintiff had sufficient water for her trip back to the Rangers station; Arnott’s was understaffed; Arnott’s failed to follow protocol by pressuring Plaintiff to return to the ship rather than obtain treatment at the Hilo emergency room; Arnott’s offered misleading information about the trail markings; Arnott’s provided Plaintiff with falsely reassuring directions back to the Rangers station; and Arnott’s permitted Plaintiff to hike in sneakers instead of boots. Plaintiff contends that this conduct constituted gross negligence, making the Agreement, which purports to exculpate Arnott’s of liability, unenforceable. Plaintiff also contends that the Agreement is an unconscionable and unenforceable contract of adhesion because it is a pre-printed form, contained multiple signatures and there was no alternative for Plaintiff but to sign it or wait at the Rangers station while the others hiked, losing a day [*12] of her cruise vacation. 3
3 Plaintiff does not dispute that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies, negating Arnott’s’ duty to prevent Plaintiff from slipping and falling on lava rock. Instead, Plaintiff relies solely on her contention that the Agreement itself is either an unenforceable exculpatory agreement or an unenforceable contract of adhesion. Defendants, however, do “not contend, nor have they even asserted, that the [Agreement] relieves them from liability for any alleged negligence, nor gross negligence.” Reply, p. 1-2.
A. Duty of Care
As a general rule, persons have a duty to use due care and avoid injury to others, and may be held liable if their careless conduct injures another person. Cal. Civ. Code § 1714. The doctrine of primary assumption of the risk is an exception to this general rule. Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696 (1992). The doctrine arises where “by virtue of the nature of the activity and the parties’ relationship to the activity, the defendant owes no legal duty to protect the plaintiff from the particular risk of harm that caused the injury.” Id. at 315. Whether the doctrine of assumption of risk applies, thereby negating a duty of care, turns on [*13] the “nature of the activity or sport in which the defendant is engaged and the relationship of the defendant and the plaintiff to that activity or sport.” Id. at 309. In reviewing the nature of the activity, the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies where “conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part” of the activity itself. Id. at 315. “The overriding consideration in the application of primary assumption of risk is to avoid imposing a duty which might chill vigorous participation in the implicated activity and thereby alter its fundamental nature.” Ferrari v. Grand Canyon Dories, 32 Cal. App. 4th 248, 253, 38 Cal. Rptr. 2d 65 (1995).
If the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies, a defendant is only liable for a plaintiff’s injuries if the defendant “engages in conduct so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport or activity” or increases the inherent risk involved in the activity. Saville v. Sierra College, 133 Cal. App. 4th 857, 866, 36 Cal. Rptr. 3d 515 (4th Dist. 2005); Kane v. National Ski Patrol, 88 Cal. App. 4th 204, 209, 105 Cal. Rptr. 2d 600 (4th Dist. 2001). The relationship between an instructor and student is instructive [*14] on the issue of whether the Arnott’s guides engaged in reckless conduct or increased the inherent risk involved in lava hiking. Kane, for example, involved candidates for a voluntary ski patrol who participated in a skills clinic instructed by Larry Stone, a National Ski Patrol System (“NSPS”) instructor. 88 Cal. App. 4th at 207. Stone led the clinic participants to the most difficult terrain at the resort. When the participants were reluctant to proceed through a portion of the trail, which was icy and spotted with trees, rocks and stumps, Stone asked the clinic participants what they would do “if there was a skier over the side?” Id. at 208. Although both plaintiffs felt uncomfortable with continuing down the terrain, they carried on, following Stone’s direction. Id. One plaintiff ultimately caught an “edge” with his ski, causing him to fall to his death, and the other plaintiff fell and suffered a broken leg. Id. The court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, holding that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applied, negating the defendant’s duty of care. The court reasoned that “an instructor’s assessment errors – either in making the necessarily subjective [*15] judgment of skill level or the equally subjective judgment about the difficulty of the conditions – are in no way ‘outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport.” Id. at 214.
Plaintiff admits that she is an experienced hiker. Andia Depo, 35:23-25. Plaintiff admits that falling is always a risk when engaging in any kind of strenuous hike on steep and uneven terrain. Id. at 153:8-14. Plaintiff admits that prior to starting the hike she was aware that she would be hiking over “very sharp and uneven surfaces.” Id. at 51:8-13. Plaintiff does not introduce any evidence to refute that hiking across uneven and challenging natural terrain is an inherent risk of hiking to active lava flow, without which the general public would be substantially deprived of viewing this natural phenomenon. The Court concludes that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies, negating Arnott’s general duty to prevent Plaintiff from slipping and falling on lava rock, an inherent risk of the activity of lava hiking.
Plaintiff admits that, prior to the hike, Arnott’s provided the following written disclosures, which she understood: that the natural terrain was uneven and challenging; that [*16] during the hike she would be responsible for the path she traveled; that the guides would give only broad direction; that she may have to return to the Rangers station alone; and that the trail was merely a preferred route, and not necessary to safely get back to the Rangers station. Despite these disclosures, Plaintiff asserts that the decision to allow Plaintiff to return to the Rangers station alone and subsequent conduct on the part of the Arnott’s guides constituted gross negligence. The Court finds that the decision to allow Plaintiff to return alone and subsequent conduct on the part of Arnott’s guides at most constituted “assessment errors,” but these “subjective judgment[s] about the difficulty of the condition[s],” were “in no way so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved” in the activity of lava hiking. See Kane, 88 Cal. App. 4th at 214. Plaintiff emphasizes that Arnott’s’ conduct, such as permitting her to participate in the hike wearing sneakers instead of hiking boots, was grossly negligent. However, the Court finds that there is no evidence in the record to support Plaintiff’s conclusion that Arnott’s conduct, including permitting [*17] Plaintiff to wear improper footwear, hike over thin lava crust, return to the Rangers station alone and without sufficient water, or return to the ship instead of going to the Hilo emergency room, increased the risk of Plaintiff’s injury. The Court concludes that there is no triable issue of fact as to whether Arnott’s conduct was so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity or otherwise increased the inherent risk involved in the activity of lava hiking.
The Court grants summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim against Arnott’s for breach of duty of care.
B. Duty to Warn
“It is established law, at least in the exercise of ordinary care, that one is under no duty to warn another of a danger equally obvious to both.” Marshall v. United Airlines, 35 Cal. App. 3d 84, 90, 110 Cal. Rptr. 416 (1973).
Plaintiff admits she is an experienced hiker, that she was aware that falling is always a risk involved in any kind of hike on steep and uneven terrain, that she knew that the terrain she would cover during the lava hike was rugged and uneven, and that she read the Agreement and the Brochure, which both emphasize the strenuous nature of the hike, the possibility that Plaintiff would [*18] have to return to the Rangers station alone and nature of the terrain. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to offer any evidence to demonstrate that the risk of slipping and falling on lava rock was any less obvious to Plaintiff than it was to Arnott’s. The Court grants summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim against Arnott’s for failure to warn.
II. Plaintiff’s Claims Against Celebrity
Celebrity contends that although Plaintiff alleges separate causes of action in negligence for breach of due care and for failure to warn, both of these claims allege only failure to warn. Celebrity contends that it had no duty to warn Plaintiff of the risk of slipping and falling on lava rock during a hike through a lava field because the risk was patently obvious and equally apparent to Plaintiff and Celebrity.
Plaintiff’s Response in Opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment on all of Plaintiff’s claims against Celebrity states in full:
[P]laintiff relied on Celebrity to provide her with reasonably safe shore excursions. The dangers of the lava hike with Arnott’s were not readily apparent to her or anyone else who had not [*19] taken the hike. Celebrity’s reliance on Deroche is misplaced.
This was not a scooter ride, which a reasonable person knows poses obvious dangers. It was a hike to a uniquely dangerous place. [Plaintiff] reasonably relied on Celebrity to exercise due care in providing her with a safe guide service, and in offering a potentially life-threatening venture. Celebrity had a duty to ensure that Arnott’ s was a reasonable safe and reliable service. Celebrity is liable for breach of that duty.
Opposition, p. 19-20.
A. Duty of Care
The duty of care of the owner of an excursion ship is a matter of federal maritime law. DeRoche v. Commodore Cruise Line, Ltd., 31 Cal. App. 4th 802, 807, 46 Cal. Rptr. 2d 468 (1994). “That duty is to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances.” Id. at 807-8.
Plaintiff fails to introduce any evidence to support her claim that Celebrity did not exercise due care when it enrolled Plaintiff in “excursion HL 15, the Kilauea Lava Viewing Hike, an unreasonably dangerous and poorly run and operated excursion.” See FAC, P 35-36. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed introduce any evidence demonstrating Celebrity breached its duty [*20] of due care to Plaintiff. The Court grants summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim against Celebrity for breach of duty of care.
B. Duty to Warn
“[I]t is generally accepted that where a carrier . . . has a continuing obligation for the care of its passengers, its duty is to warn of dangers known to the carrier in places where the passenger is invited to, or may reasonably be expected to visit.” DeRoche, 31 Cal. App. 4th at 809. However, “there is no duty to warn of a danger that is as obvious to the injured party as to the defendant.” Id. at 810.
As previously discussed, Plaintiff admits she is an experienced hiker, that she was aware that falling is a risk involved in any kind of hike on steep and uneven terrain, that she knew that the terrain she would cover for the lava hike was rugged and uneven, and that she read the Agreement and the Brochure, which both emphasize the strenuous nature of the hike, the challenging nature of the terrain and the possibility that Plaintiff would have to return to the Rangers station alone. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed offer any evidence that demonstrates the risk of falling [*21] on lava rock was any less obvious to her than it was to Celebrity. The Court grants summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim against Celebrity for failure to warn.
Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment, filed by Celebrity Cruises, Inc. and Arnott’s Lodge and Hike Adventures (Doc. # 40) is GRANTED. The Court directs the Clerk of the Court to enter JUDGMENT for Defendants and against Plaintiff.
DATED: November 29, 2007
/s/ William Q. Hayes
WILLIAM Q. HAYES
United States District Judge
Mary Magazine, Plaintiff, v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, LTD. d/b/a Royal Caribbean International, Defendant.
CASE NO. 12-23431-CIV-SEITZ/SIMONTON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF FLORIDA
2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41092
March 27, 2014, Decided
March 27, 2014, Filed
CORE TERMS: instructor, rope, warning, balancing, summary judgment, negligently, warn, lesson, duty to warn, passenger, falling, video, reasonable care, proximately, proximate, cruise, notice, ride, risk of injury, breached, surface, dangerous condition, serious bodily injury, unreasonably, contributed, failure to warn, nonmoving, aboard, warned, ship
COUNSEL: [*1] For MARY MAGAZINE, Plaintiff: Kate S. Goodsell, LEAD ATTORNEY, Michael Charles Black, Cassidy & Black, P.A., Miami, FL.
For Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., doing business as Royal Caribbean International, Defendant: Bryan Edward Probst, LEAD ATTORNEY, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., Miami, FL; Curtis Jay Mase, LEAD ATTORNEY, Mase, Lara, Eversole PA, Miami, FL; Jennifer Nicole Hernandez, Mase Lara Eversole, P.A., Miami, FL; Lauren E DeFabio, Mase Lara Eversole, Miami, FL.
JUDGES: PATRICIA A. SEITZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
OPINION BY: PATRICIA A. SEITZ
ORDER ON SUMMARY JUDGMENT
THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant’s Motion for Final Summary Judgment [DE-41]. This action arises from a broken leg suffered during a private lesson on the FlowRider, a surfing simulator aboard one of Defendant Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. (“RCL”)’s cruise ships. The essence of Plaintiff Mary Magazine’s single-count complaint is that RCL failed to follow its own procedures and thus negligently increased the risk of Magazine’s injury, principally by failing to warn her of the risk of injury on the FlowRider and by negligently instructing her in its use.
Having considered the motion, the response [DE-48] and reply [DE-52] [*2] thereto, the oral argument of counsel on March 20, 2014, and all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the Court will grant the motion as to the allegations that RCL caused an unreasonably dangerous condition under the circumstances, negligently designed and maintained the FlowRider, and negligently failed to warn of the risk of injury therefrom. It will deny the motion as to the allegation that RCL negligently instructed Magazine in the use of the FlowRider, as the Parties’ papers have not addressed Magazine’s counsel’s argument at the March 20, 2014 hearing that the instructors’ hand-off of the balancing rope contributed to the risk of Magazine’s injury.
I. Factual Background
On September 18, 2011, Plaintiff Mary Magazine, a 59-year-old attorney and Miami, Florida resident, departed on a Card Player Cruise aboard the Allure of the Seas, one of RCL’s cruise ships. The FlowRider is a surfing simulator, installed on the Allure of the Seas and other RCL vessels, that uses powerful jets of water to create a continuous, artificial wave on which participants try to surf or ride using either a bodyboard or a surfboard (or “flowboard”). Unlike ocean waves, the FlowRider’s [*3] artificial wave consists of only 1 – 3 inches of water above a “stationary, tensioned vinyl matted fabric surface” above a “rigid or fiberglass or PVC subsurface.” (“Express Assumption of Risk – Waiver & Release of Liability – FlowRider Onboard Activity Waiver – General Terms & Conditions” [DE-41-3] (“FlowRider Waiver”) at 2.)
Almost 2 weeks earlier, on September 6, 2011, Magazine had electronically registered to participate in various activities on the cruise, including ice skating, rock climbing, zip lining, and the FlowRider. As part of the registration process, Magazine checked boxes for each activity and electronically signed the FlowRider Waiver.1 She knew at the time that checking boxes meant “signing something,” which may have included warnings, but does not recall seeing any of the content of the FlowRider Waiver. She did not take additional steps at the time to research any of the activities. Once aboard the ship, she signed up for a FlowRider lesson. Because she was taking a lesson, and because she had previously participated in numerous sports without injury, she did not expect to be injured on the FlowRider. (FlowRider Waiver; Dep. of Mary Magazine [DE-41-2] (“Magazine [*4] Dep.”) 44:1 – 53:4, 69:17 – 22, 122:15 – 123:1.)
1 The parties agree that the FlowRider Waiver is unenforceable under Johnson v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., 449 F. App’x 846 (11th Cir. 2011).
RCL contends that it warns its passengers of the risks associated with the use of the FlowRider in several ways, all of which Magazine testifies she did not see before her accident. These include the FlowRider Waiver, a “Caution” sign in a viewing area near the FlowRider entrance, a 5-minute safety video that plays on certain television channels in the guests’ staterooms, and a 8.5″ x 11″ sheet on a bulletin board.
On September 20, 2011, Magazine and two other passengers participated in a private FlowRider lesson, which cost $60 per person. One of the instructors asked Magazine about the knee brace she was wearing, and she responded that she’d had a knee replacement and used a brace “just for stability purposes.” Neither instructor said anything further about her knee. (Magazine Dep. 76:17 – 78:6.) There is no evidence that any instructor at this time warned Magazine of any risks associated with the FlowRider or inquired as to her understanding of those risks.
During the lesson, Magazine received [*5] verbal instructions from two RCL FlowRider instructors, though she does not remember the instructions in detail. She first watched another member of her group practice balancing on the board while receiving instruction, lose his balance, fall to the back of the FlowRider, and return to wait in line to ride again. Then, on Magazine’s turn, an instructor initially held her hand while she practiced standing on and maneuvering the flowboard. She was barefoot at this time and throughout the lesson. The instructor then let go of her hand, and Magazine tried to maintain her balance on her own until she fell and was carried by the water to the back of the FlowRider. She returned to wait in line to ride again, ultimately falling and returning to practice riding the FlowRider a total of approximately 10 to 12 times. (See Magazine Dep. 78:10 – 81:3; Dep. of 30(b)(6) representative of RCL, Alison Frazier [DE-42-1] (“RCL Dep.”) 68:3 – 69:8; Pl.’s Notice of Serving Answers to Interrog. [DE-41-1] (“Pl. Interrog.”) ¶ 8.)
After several rides, once the instructor seemed to think Magazine could balance without assistance, the instructors started using a balancing rope. One instructor would give her a [*6] rope, held by a second instructor standing near the front of the FlowRider, to hold with her right hand, while the first instructor held her left hand. Eventually the first instructor would let go of Magazine’s left hand, and the second instructor would guide her with the rope towards the front and middle of the FlowRider, where the water flow was stronger than it had been further back and on the side. It is unclear how many times Magazine practiced with the balancing rope in this way before her injury. (See Magazine Dep. 108:16 – 109:12; Pl. Interrog. ¶ 8.)
During Magazine’s last ride, she was holding the rope while the second instructor guided her to the front and middle of the FlowRider as described above. The video of her accident 2 shows that the second instructor, who had initially been holding the rope, handed the rope to the first instructor. Soon thereafter, Magazine lost her balance and fell backwards into the water. Her legs separated and she lost control of the flowboard. Her fall resulted in a spiral fracture in her femur and ultimately in permanent nerve damage, numbness, tingling, and a pronounced limp. (See Magazine Dep. 112:7 – 119:8; Pl. Interrog. ¶¶ 8, 10; Dep. of [*7] Kevin Breen [DE-44-1] (“Breen Dep.”) 80:8 – 81:23; Def’s Mot. for Final Summ. J. [DE-41] (“SJ Mot.”) at 7 ¶ 27; Pl.’s Resp. in Opp’n to Def.’s Mot. for Final Summ. J. [DE-48] (“Response”) at 8 ¶ 27.)
2 The video of Magazine’s accident was not part of the summary judgment record, but the testimony in the record refers frequently to this video. (See, e.g., Magazine Dep. 23:17 – 19.) Thus, the Court asked the Parties to provide it to the Court at the March 20, 2014 hearing.
II. Legal Standard
General maritime law controls the present action, as it involves an alleged tort committed aboard a ship in navigable waters. Therefore, the elements of negligence are: “(1) the defendant had a duty to protect the plaintiff from a particular injury; (2) the defendant breached that duty; (3) the breach actually and proximately caused the plaintiff’s injury; and (4) the plaintiff suffered actual harm.” Chaparro v. Carnival Corp., 693 F.3d 1333, 1336 (11th Cir. 2012) (citing Zivojinovich v. Barner, 525 F.3d 1059, 1067 (11th Cir. 2008)). In the maritime context, “a shipowner owes the duty of exercising reasonable care towards those lawfully aboard the vessel who are not members of the crew.” Id. (quoting [*8] Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 630, 79 S. Ct. 406, 3 L. Ed. 2d 550 (1959)).
“Summary judgment is appropriate only when, after viewing the evidence and all reasonable inferences drawn from it in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the court nonetheless concludes that no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The moving party carries the initial burden of production, which can be met by showing that the nonmoving plaintiff has failed to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Fickling v. United States, 507 F.3d 1302, 1304 (11th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted).
Once the moving party’s burden is met, the nonmoving party, having had the opportunity to conduct full discovery, must demonstrate that there is factual support for each element necessary to establish each claim it wishes to pursue at trial. If the nonmoving party cannot do so, then summary judgment is proper because “a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case necessarily renders all other [*9] facts immaterial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986).
Magazine alleges that RCL breached its duty of care in five ways: (1) by causing an “unreasonably dangerous condition” on the FlowRider; (2) by negligently maintaining and (3) negligently designing the FlowRider; (4) by failing to warn her of the risk of injury; and (5) by negligently supervising and instructing 3 her in its use.
3 Although the Complaint alleges that RCL “negligently supervised” Magazine, the Parties now characterize this claim as “negligent supervision and instruction.” (SJ Mot. at 16; Response at 25.) There is no evidence that RCL inadequately supervised or trained its instructors; rather, Magazine argues that RCL’s instructors were negligent towards her during her FlowRider lesson. As such, the claim is more accurately described as negligent instruction.
As to the claims of negligent design and negligent maintenance, Magazine’s counsel conceded at the March 20, 2014 hearing that RCL did not design the FlowRider and that there is no evidence of negligent maintenance. (See also SJ Mot. at 9 ¶¶ 34 – 37; Response at 10 ¶¶ 34 – 37.) To be liable for negligent design, a defendant must have [*10] played some role in the design. See Rodgers v. Costa Crociere, S.P.A., 410 F. App’x 210, 212 (2010) (affirming summary judgment for defendant where there was no evidence that defendant had actually designed the relevant area). Therefore, summary judgment is proper as to the claims of negligent design and negligent maintenance.
Magazine’s counsel also argued at the hearing that RCL’s “caus[ing] an unreasonably dangerous condition” was an independent theory of negligence. However, there is no evidence in the record supporting the existence of any such “unreasonably dangerous condition” that is distinct from the allegations of RCL’s failure to warn, negligent design, negligent maintenance, and negligent instruction. Therefore, summary judgment is proper as to a separate claim that RCL caused an unreasonably dangerous condition under the circumstances.
The Court now turns to the remaining theories of negligence: that RCL failed to warn Magazine of the FlowRider’s risks and negligently instructed her in its use.
A. RCL’s Duty to Warn
A shipowner’s duty of reasonable care includes a duty to warn passengers of dangers of which the shipowner knows or should know but which may not be apparent to [*11] a reasonable passenger. Cohen v. Carnival Corp., 945 F. Supp. 2d 1351, 1357 (S.D. Fla. 2013). The duty to warn does not extend to dangers that are “open and obvious.” Id. “The obviousness of a danger and adequacy of a warning are determined by a ‘reasonable person’ standard, rather than on each particular plaintiff’s subjective appreciation of the danger. Individual subjective perceptions of the injured party are irrelevant in the determination of whether a duty to warn existed.” John Morrell & Co. v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., 534 F. Supp. 2d 1345, 1351 (S.D. Fla. 2008) (citations omitted).4
4 See also Restatement (Third) of Torts: Phys. & Emot. Harm § 18, cmt. f (2010):
[T]here generally is no obligation to warn of a hazard that should be appreciated by persons whose intelligence and experience are within the normal range. When the risk involved in the defendant’s conduct is encountered by many persons, it may be foreseeable that some fraction of them will be lacking the intelligence or the experience needed to appreciate the risk. But to require warnings for the sake of such persons would produce such a profusion of warnings as to devalue those warnings serving a more important [*12] function.
RCL maintains that it reasonably warned Magazine multiple times of the risks posed by the FlowRider. (SJ Mot. at 11 – 14.) RCL points to the FlowRider waiver, a “Caution” sign, a 5-minute safety video that plays on certain television channels in the guests’ staterooms, and a 8.5″ x 11″ sheet on a bulletin board.
“Whether adequate efforts were made to communicate a warning to the ultimate user and whether the warning if communicated was adequate are uniformly held questions for the jury.” Stapleton v. Kawasaki Heavy Indus., Ltd., 608 F.2d 571, 573 (5th Cir. 1979), modified on other grounds, 612 F.2d 905 (5th Cir. 1980). At summary judgment, the Court must accept Magazine’s testimony that she did not see any of these warnings.
Instead, as detailed below, the dispositive issues are (1) proximate causation and (2) the lack of duty to warn of open and obvious dangers. RCL has two arguments about these issues. First, any alleged failure to warn was not the proximate cause of Magazine’s injury because she “testified that she would not have heeded warnings anyway.” (SJ Mot. at 14.) Second, “the risk of falling and suffering an injury on the FlowRider is surely open and obvious under [*13] the facts of this case.” (Id. at 15 – 16.)
1. Applicable Law
In any negligence claim, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s breach of duty actually and proximately caused the plaintiff’s injury. Hercules Carriers, Inc. v. Claimant State of Florida, 768 F.2d 1558, 1566 (11th Cir. 1985) (“[F]ault in the abstract is not sufficient. To produce liability, the acts of negligence . . . must be a contributory and proximate cause of the accident.”). This requires that the defendant’s breach “be a substantial factor in bringing about the harm.” Chavez v. Noble Drilling Corp., 567 F.2d 287, 289 (5th Cir. 1978). Thus, to prove that a defendant’s failure to warn caused an injury, the plaintiff must show that the risk about which the defendant failed to warn the plaintiff caused the injury.
In addition, as noted above, a defendant has no duty to warn a plaintiff about dangers that are open and obvious.5 Therefore, to prevail on a negligence claim predicated on a defendant’s failure to warn, a plaintiff must identify a specific risk (1) of which the defendant had notice or constructive notice, (2) that is not open and obvious, (3) about which the defendant failed to warn the plaintiff, and (4) [*14] that actually caused the plaintiff’s injury. See, e.g., Chaparro v. Carnival Corp., 693 F.3d 1333, 1336 (11th Cir. 2012) (plaintiffs had adequately stated claim that cruise line breached its duty to warn plaintiffs about the high prevalence of gang-related violence in Coki Beach that caused one plaintiff’s death). As neither party identifies the relevant risk with adequate specificity in their written or oral arguments, the Court must glean the types of potentially relevant risks from the Parties’ papers and the record. For the reasons stated below, the Court finds no evidentiary support for a reasonable jury to conclude that any risk exists in this case that meets all four criteria essential to a negligent-failure-to-warn claim.
5 The lack of a duty to warn of open and obvious dangers is related to the requirement of proximate causation because “warning of an obvious or generally known risk in most instances will not provide an effective additional measure of safety,” particularly as such warnings “may be ignored by users and consumers and can diminish the significance of warnings about non-obvious, not-generally-known risks.” Veliz v. Rental Serv. Corp. USA, Inc., 313 F. Supp. 2d 1317, 1323 (M.D. Fla. 2003) [*15] (citation omitted).
2. Identifying the Relevant Risk
a. Risk of Falling on the FlowRider
The relevant risk is not simply that one might fall on the FlowRider, as RCL appears to argue at times. (See, e.g., SJ Mot. at 16 (“Plaintiff’s expert and Carnival’s [sic] expert both agreed that falling on the FlowRider is an obvious risk.”).) A reasonable jury could conclude that a first-time participant is virtually guaranteed to fall on the FlowRider.6 However, a fall that results in a spiral fracture and permanent nerve damage is not in the same category as the 10 – 12 earlier falls that Magazine described as “actually kind of fun.” (Magazine Dep. 107:13.) In fact, RCL’s own expert stated that Magazine’s injury resulted from “nuances of how she fell on this occasion, and not the fact that she just fell.” (Expert Report of K. Breen [DE-43-2] at 7.)
6 In fact, RCL’s website advertises the opportunity to “cheer on friends from stadium seating with prime wipeout views” of the FlowRider, suggesting that RCL considers falling to be part of its appeal. Things to do onboard, Royal Caribbean International, http://www.royalcaribbean.com/findacruise/experiencetypes/category.do?pagename=onboard_cat_things_to_do [*16] (last visited Mar. 24, 2014).
b. Risk of Serious Bodily Injury or Death
Instead, the relevant risk is the general risk of serious bodily injury or death on the FlowRider. In the circumstances of this case, this is the same risk as what RCL characterizes as “the risk of falling and suffering an injury on the FlowRider” (SJ Mot. at 15 (emphasis added)) and what Magazine describes as “that there was a chance that she would get hurt while participating in the FlowRider” (Response at 9 ¶ 30). Having identified the relevant risk, the Court finds that summary judgment is proper here for two reasons.
First, any failure by RCL to warn of this general risk did not proximately cause Magazine’s injury. Magazine expressly testified that a warning sign referring only to a “risk of serious bodily injury or death” would not have stopped her from participating in the FlowRider (Magazine Dep. 111:22 – 112:2), and there is no indication in the record that such a warning might have reduced the severity of her injury. Therefore, any breach by RCL of a duty to warn Magazine of the risk of serious bodily injury or death did not proximately cause Magazine’s injury.
Second, the general risk of injury on the FlowRider [*17] is open and obvious. The FlowRider is a recreational activity, and the risk of which Magazine argues she should have been warned is created by the FlowRider itself, rather than by an anomalous condition in an otherwise safe area, such as a protruding nail or slippery substance on a walkway. Courts routinely recognize that sports and similar recreational activities pose an inherent risk of injury and that such inherent risk, in the absence of some hidden danger, is open and obvious. See Lapidus v. NCL Am. LLC, 924 F. Supp. 2d 1352 (S.D. Fla. 2013) (risk of heart attack from uneven terrain on a hike is open and obvious, but risk from invisible volcanic gasses might not be); Balachander v. NCL Ltd., 800 F. Supp. 2d 1196 (S.D. Fla. 2011) (risk of drowning while swimming in the ocean is open and obvious); Mendel v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., No. 10-23398, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86052, 2012 WL 2367853 (S.D. Fla. June 21, 2012) (risk of slipping while exiting a swimming pool is open and obvious); Young v. Carnival Corp., No. 09-21949, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10899, 2011 WL 465366 (S.D. Fla. Feb. 4, 2011) (risk of tripping while hiking is open and obvious).
Although Magazine argues otherwise, there is no evidence that the Court can extract from the [*18] record supporting the existence of any other risk that is not open and obvious and that could have contributed to her injury. The Court will now address each of the three risks suggested in Magazine’s testimony and arguments.
c. Surface of the FlowRider
Magazine argues that she probably would not have participated in the FlowRider if she had known “that the floor of the FlowRider is a metal surface covered with foam and was as hard as it was.” (Response at 24.) She also testified that she had expected prior to her injury that the foam padding over the base of the FlowRider would be as thick as the padding at the back of the FlowRider (Magazine Dep. 102:6 – 103:3), in contrast to her understanding at the time of testimony that “[u]nderneath the surface of the FlowRider there’s some kind of metal.” (Magazine Dep. 88:7 – 9.)
If the FlowRider’s surface were somehow more dangerous than a reasonable person might expect, that might justify requiring a warning. See, e.g., Caldwell v. Carnival Corp., 944 F. Supp. 2d 1219, 1223 (S.D. Fla. 2013) (plaintiff had adequately stated claim that defendant breached its duty to warn of the slippery condition of its walkway). However, there is no evidence [*19] in the record, other than Magazine’s speculation, suggesting that the subsurface of the FlowRider is made of metal or that there is any less padding than would have been apparent to Magazine from her earlier 10 – 12 rides or to any other FlowRider participant who had the opportunity to walk barefoot on the FlowRider’s surface.
d. Particular Medical Conditions
Magazine testified in her deposition that the FlowRider Waiver was inadequate partially because “[t]here’s nothing . . . that I saw, that says if you have any kind of medical issues, that you should not go on this ride.” (Magazine Dep. 90:6 – 8; see also Response at 8 ¶ 29.) If the FlowRider posed a danger to people with particular medical conditions in ways that a reasonable person with such medical conditions might not expect, that too might justify requiring a warning. However, Magazine expressly states that her knee condition did not cause her injury (Magazine Dep. 126:5 – 127:17), and there is no evidence in the record suggesting that Magazine had any other such medical condition that contributed to her injury. Therefore, any failure to warn Magazine about a risk to those with particular medical conditions did not proximately [*20] cause Magazine’s injury.
e. Previous Injuries on the FlowRider
Magazine also appears to argue that RCL had a duty to inform her that people had previously been injured on the FlowRider. She states in her interrogatory responses that “if I had been advised of all the serious injuries that other RCL guests had experienced I would not have even taken a lesson.” (Pl. Interrog. ¶ 9.) In her deposition, Magazine described the FlowRider Waiver as inadequate partially because “they don’t tell you how many people have been injured on this thing.” (Magazine Dep. 90:2 – 13; see also Response at 8 ¶ 29.) Magazine now emphasizes that “at least one person died using the FlowRider and some 147 more were severely injured using it in the short time between the maiden voyages of the Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas and Plaintiff’s accident” whereas “[n]o guest has ever died using any other onboard activities.” (Response at 27 – 28.)
This argument fails because it does not point to the existence of a non-open-and-obvious risk that could have proximately caused Magazine’s injury. It demonstrates that the FlowRider posed a risk of serious bodily injury or death and that RCL knew of this risk.7 However, [*21] RCL is not contesting these points; in fact, RCL’s primary argument is that RCL adequately warned Magazine of the risk of serious bodily injury or death. Magazine has pointed to no other authority, either in law or in customary practice, imposing a duty to inform passengers of specific numbers of injuries. (See Dep. of Daniel Connaughton, Ed.D. [DE-43-3] (“Connaughton Dep.”) 107:5 – 15.)
7 The list of injuries includes some fractures but also many sprained ankles and toe contusions, which are difficult to characterize as “severe” or as substantially similar to Magazine’s injury. (See Def.’s First. Suppl. Resp. to Pl.’s Req. for Produc. [DE-48-5]; Def’s Notice of Serving First Suppl. Resp. to Pl.’s Interrog. [DE-48-6].)
3. Failure of Proof on Essential Element of Claim
Put simply, while Magazine contends that certain warnings should have been more prominently displayed, she has not identified any risk about which she should have been warned differently such that a warning might have made a difference. The only risk that materialized was the general risk that one could fall and be injured on the FlowRider, which was so open and obvious that Magazine admits that a warning referring only to [*22] this general risk would not have mattered. Magazine has not pointed to any other risk about which there was any basis to expect a warning. As such, there is no genuine issue of material fact as to the claim that RCL breached its duty to warn.
B. Issues of Fact As To Negligent Instruction
RCL moves for summary judgment on Magazine’s negligent instruction claim on the grounds that (1) Magazine “avers that she received thorough instruction” from the instructors; (2) the “instructor’s use of a balancing rope to aid the FlowRider passengers was reasonable under the circumstances;” and (3) “there is no record evidence that RCL was on notice that the use of the balance rope was improper.” (SJ Mot. at 16 – 18.)
Magazine responds that (1) a reasonable instructor should ensure that participants understand the relevant risks, such as by requiring viewing of the safety video and providing an explicit opportunity for questions; (2) the use of a balancing rope is “not referenced anywhere as an acceptable balancing or teaching method” in the relevant FlowRider manuals (Response at 25); and (3) RCL failed to provide “reasonable instructional progression including the use of a bodyboard prior to stand-up [*23] riding, as suggested by Wave Loch/FlowRider.” (Report of Daniel Connaughton, Ed.D. [DE-40-1] at 7.) Additionally, at oral argument, Magazine’s counsel pointed to a few seconds of the accident video to support the argument that the hand-off of the balancing rope from one instructor to another contributed to Magazine’s loss of balance and subsequent injury.
The Court has already addressed RCL’s alleged failure to warn. Reasonable care by an instructor may very well include ensuring that participants understand the relevant risks. However, Magazine’s claim on this ground fails due to a lack of proximate causation and because the relevant risk was open and obvious.
As Magazine’s expert concedes, there is no evidence in the record that any failure by RCL to provide a bodyboard contributed to the risk of Magazine’s injury. (Connaughton Dep. 52:7 – 56:3.) Therefore, this argument fails as well.
However, because the Parties’ briefing did not address Magazine’s counsel’s argument at the March 20, 2014 hearing regarding the transfer of the balancing rope, the Court cannot conclude at this time, as a matter of law, that RCL’s instructors necessarily exercised reasonable care in their handling of [*24] the balancing rope, and that such breach did not heighten the risk of Magazine’s injury.8 While the Court is not deciding this issue of law at this time, in a paid lesson for a sport or similar recreational activity such as the FlowRider, reasonable care by an instructor may include not exposing a plaintiff to risks beyond those inherent in the recreational activity itself, at least not before the plaintiff is ready to handle those risks.9
8 There is no evidence undercutting RCL’s contention that the instructors had received all of RCL’s training to become a FlowRider instructor. (RCL Dep. 67:14 – 68:19; SJ Mot. at 6 ¶ 19; Response at 6 ¶ 19.) This may preclude a finding that their use of the balancing rope was inherently improper. (Connaughton Dep. 25:4 – 26:15.) However, this does not address whether the instructors exercised reasonable care in handling the balancing rope.
9 Federal courts exercising admiralty jurisdiction “may draw guidance from, inter alia, the extensive body of state law applying proximate causation requirements and from treatises and other scholarly sources.” Exxon Co., U.S.A. v. Sofec, Inc., 517 U.S. 830, 831, 116 S. Ct. 1813, 135 L. Ed. 2d 113 (1996). State law reveals a range of approaches. Compare, [*25] e.g., Alber ex rel. Albert v. Ober Gatlinburg, Inc., No. 3:02-CV-277, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 100150, 2006 WL 208580, at *5, *8 (E.D. Tenn. Jan. 25, 2006) (denying summary judgment on the grounds that (1) reasonable care meant not exposing skiers to risks that “were not an inherent risk of skiing” and (2) genuine issues of material fact remained as to “the adequacy of the ski lesson . . . and whether that lack of instruction was a proximate cause of [plaintiff's] fall and injuries.”) and Derricotte v. United Skates of Am., 350 N.J. Super. 227, 794 A.2d 867, 871 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2002) (“[P]laintiff’s fall as a result of the rink’s alleged negligence in teaching her how to skate was not an ‘inherent,’ ‘obvious’ or ‘necessary’ risk of skating.”) with Fredrickson v. Mackey, 196 Kan. 542, 413 P.2d 86, 89 (Kan. 1966) (offering horse-riding lessons does not turn a defendant into an “insurer against all possibility of injury or accident”).
Magazine testified that the instructor holding the rope pulled her closer to the front and the middle of the FlowRider, where the water flow was considerably stronger, before she was ready, resulting in her being unable to control the flowboard as she fell. (Magazine Dep. 116:10 – 17, 118:7 – 119:8.) Furthermore, [*26] a jury could view the video of Magazine’s accident as corroborating her testimony and as showing that the hand-off of the balancing rope contributed to the risk of Magazine’s injury.
The Parties’ papers did not address Magazine’s claim as framed in this fashion. Given this framing, these issues remain:
(1) Did the instructors’ handling of the balancing rope contribute to the risk of Magazine’s particular injury?
(2) Was the resulting risk greater than the inherent risk of injury on the FlowRider?
RCL’s response that “the rope helped to maintain Plaintiff’s balance before she fell” (SJ Mot. at 7 ¶ 24) does not adequately address these issues. The relevant risk is not of falling but of falling in a way likely to result in injury, such as by losing control of the board while falling. RCL’s argument that “there is no record evidence that RCL was on notice that the use of the balance rope was a danger to any passenger” (SJ Mot. at 18) is also not dispositive, because the requirement of notice applies to risks created by passive conditions such as slippery walkways or protruding nails, not to risks created by a defendant’s actions. See Long v. Celebrity Cruises, Inc., No. 12-22807, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 164035, 2013 WL 6043918, at *3 (S.D. Fla. Aug. 1, 2013) [*27] (collecting cases).
RCL also argues that Magazine’s testimony is speculative and therefore insufficient to defeat summary judgment. However, the direct testimony of an accident victim about her own accident is not “speculation.” The two cases that RCL cites are not applicable. (Def.’s Reply in Supp. of Mot. for Final Summ. J. at 10.) The first case, Putman v. Sec’y, Dep’t of Veterans Affairs, 510 F. App’x 827 (11th Cir. 2013), addresses the procedurally distinct burden-shifting framework of employment discrimination. The second case, Doe v. NCL (Bahamas) Ltd., No. 11-22230, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162654, 2012 WL 5512347 (S.D. Fla. Nov. 14, 2012), involves a plaintiff’s initial speculation that contradicted that same plaintiff’s later representations to the court, rather than a plaintiff’s testimony on a subject about which she has personal knowledge.10
10 Magazine’s testimony about her accident thus differs from her speculation as to the composition of the FlowRider’s subsurface.
Because the Parties have not focused on the reframed issues, the Court cannot conclude at this time that there are no genuine issues of material fact as to (1) whether the instructors’ handling of the balancing rope breached their duty of reasonable [*28] care under the circumstances and (2) whether any such breach actually and proximately caused Magazine’s injury. The Court is mindful that accidents, sadly, do happen, and a cruise ship operator “is not an insurer of its passengers’ safety. There thus must be some failure to exercise due care before liability may be imposed.” Monteleone v. Bahama Cruise Line, Inc., 838 F.2d 63, 65 (2d Cir. 1988) (citation omitted). If Magazine fails to establish the necessary evidentiary support for this claim at trial, the Court will entertain a motion for a directed verdict after she rests her case.
Accordingly, it is
1. Defendant’s Motion for Final Summary Judgment [DE-41] is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART as follows:
a) GRANTED WITH PREJUDICE with respect to Magazine’s allegation that RCL “caused an unreasonably dangerous condition under the circumstances.”
b) GRANTED WITH PREJUDICE with respect to Magazine’s allegation that RCL “negligently maintained the Flowrider in question.”
c) GRANTED WITH PREJUDICE with respect to Magazine’s allegation that “the Flowrider in which the Plaintiff fell was negligently designed.”
d) GRANTED WITH PREJUDICE with respect to Magazine’s allegation [*29] that RCL “failed to warn the Plaintiff and fellow passengers of a dangerous and hazardous condition about which it knew or should have known.”
e) DENIED with respect to Magazine’s reframed allegation that RCL negligently instructed her in the use of the FlowRider.
2. The deadline to file the Joint Pretrial Stipulation, proposed jury instructions and verdict form, and Motions in Limine and Responses [see DE-8 at 2] is EXTENDED to April 10, 2014.
3. The Pretrial Conference is RESCHEDULED to 1:30 pm on April 22, 2014.
4. Defendant’s Motion in Limine to Admit Evidence of Defendant’s Warnings Regarding the FlowRider [DE-29] is DENIED as failing to comply with the requirements set in this Court’s March 12, 2013 Order [DE-8 at 2].
DONE and ORDERED in Miami, Florida, this 27th day of March, 2014.
/s/ Patricia A. Seitz
PATRICIA A. SEITZ
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Natifracuria, Plaintiff-Appellant, Virginia College L.L.C.; Education Corporation of America; Willis-Stein and Partners, Defendants-Appellees,
No. 11-60861 Summary Calendar
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT
June 26, 2012, Filed
NOTICE: PLEASE REFER TO FEDERAL RULES OF APPELLATE PROCEDURE RULE 32.1 GOVERNING THE CITATION TO UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS.
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1]
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. USDC No. 3:11-CV-496.
DISPOSITION: The district court’s judgment is AFFIRMED.
COUNSEL: For NATIFRACURIA DANIELS, Plaintiff – Appellant: Precious Tyrone Martin, Sr., Esq., Precious Martin, Sr. & Associates, P.L.L.C., Jackson, MS.
For VIRGINIA COLLEGE, L.L.C., EDUCATION CORPORATION OF AMERICA, Defendants – Appellees: Ollie Ancil Cleveland, III, Esq., Peter Sean Fruin, Attorney, Maynard, Cooper & Gale, P.C. Birmingham, AL.
For WILLIS-STEIN AND PARTNERS, Defendant – Appellee: Robert Lewis Gibbs, Esq., Gibbs Whitwell, P.L.L.C., Jackson, MS.
JUDGES: Before REAVLEY, SMITH, and PRADO, Circuit Judges.
[*893] PER CURIAM:*
* Pursuant to 5th Cir. R. 47.5, the court has determined that this opinion should not be published and is not precedent except under the limited circumstances set forth in 5th Cir. R. 47.5.4.
Plaintiff-Appellant Natifracuria Daniels appeals the district court’s order compelling arbitration of her state-law tort and restitution claims against Defendants-Appellees Virginia College at Jackson, Virginia College, L.L.C., Education Corporation of America, and Willis-Stein and Partners (collectively “Virginia College”). Virginia College moved [**2] to compel arbitration in order to enforce an arbitration clause in the “Enrollment and Tuition Agreement,” which Daniels signed before enrolling as a student at Defendant Virginia College at Jackson (individually, “the College”). On appeal, Daniels contends that the Agreement’s arbitration clause does not cover her tort claims, and she contends that the arbitration clause is unconscionable.
The Enrollment Agreement’s arbitration clause requires arbitration of any claim “arising out of or relating to [the Agreement], together will all other claims . . . of any nature whatsoever arising out of or in relation to [Daniels's] enrollment and participation in courses at the College . . . .” Daniels alleges that the College unlawfully retained the portion of her federal financial aid monies that should have been disbursed to Daniels to cover her cost of living. She brings state-law claims sounding in negligence, conversion, embezzlement, and unjust enrichment. Because these claims arose “in relation to [Daniels's] enrollment and participation in courses at the College,” the district court was correct in finding them subject to the arbitration clause.
[HN1] Under Mississippi law,1 substantive [**3] unconscionability “is proven by oppressive contract terms such that there is a one-sided agreement whereby one party is deprived of all the benefits of the agreement or left without a remedy for another party’s nonperformance or breach.” Covenant Health and Rehab. of Picayune, LP v. Estate of Moulds, 14 So. 3d 695, 699-700 (Miss. 2009) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). In Covenant Health, the Mississippi Supreme Court found that a contract containing an arbitration clause “coupled with a multitude of unconscionable provisions,” including asymmetrical limitations on liability, choice of forum, and other matters, was unenforceable in its entirety. Id. at 703. Daniels argues that the Enrollment Agreement is similarly laden with unconscionable provisions.
1 The Enrollment Agreement has an Alabama choice-of-law provision. But no party raises this provision, and they have relied on Mississippi law throughout their briefing on appeal and before the district court.
First, there is language in the arbitration clause that allows the College, but not Daniels, to seek injunctive relief in court. [HN2] An agreement that requires only one party to submit its claims to arbitration is unconscionable [**4] under Mississippi law,2 but the language at issue here merely allows the College to seek a preliminary injunction to halt a student’s ongoing breach of the Enrollment Agreement. The College must seek all other relief though arbitration. An asymmetric exception so limited in scope does not make an arbitration clause unconscionable. Sawyers v. Herrin-Gear Chev. Co., 26 So. 3d 1026, 1035 (Miss. 2010) (arbitration clause between car dealer and purchaser enforceable notwithstanding exception allowing car dealer to bring an action to repossess the car in court).
2 Covenant Health, 14 So. 3d at 700 (citing Pridgen v. Green Tree Fin. Servicing Corp., 88 F. Supp. 2d 655, 658 (S.D. Miss. 2000)).
[*894] Daniels also points to the arbitration clause’s language prohibiting the arbitrator from awarding any damages not “measured by the prevailing party’s actual compensatory damages.” [HN3] Ostensibly bilateral limitations on punitive damages are unconscionable under Mississippi law if they are one-sided in practical effect due to the weaker party’s being “much more likely to be justified in seeking punitive damages.” Vicksburg Partners, L.P. v. Stephens, 911 So.2d 507, 523-24 (Miss 2005) (ostensibly bilateral punitive-damages [**5] limitation in contract of adhesion between nursing home and occupant unenforceable against occupant), overruled on other grounds by Covenant Health, 14 So. 3d at 706 (Miss. 2009). However, as Virginia College concedes in its brief, the arbitration clause does not bar the arbitrator from awarding damages in excess of compensatory damages. It merely requires that the amount of such damages be based on the prevailing party’s compensatory damages. Sawyers, 26 So. 3d at 1036 (interpreting nearly identical language as requiring only that the parties be “limited as to the amount of punitive damages which might be awarded, since such an award would have to be ‘measured by the prevailing party’s actual damages’”). Such provisions are not unconscionable. Id.
Daniels next points to the Enrollment Agreement’s asymmetric liquidated damages provision, which she contends would leave her without any remedy for the wrongs she alleges because its language limits her recovery to “an amount equal to any non-refunded tuition payments . . . .” [HN4] Contractual provisions intended to exculpate a party of liability for its own tortious conduct are particularly suspect under Mississippi law. See Turnbough v. Ladner, 754 So.2d 467, 469 (Miss. 1999)). [**6] As Virginia College concedes, however, the liquidated damages provision in the Enrollment Agreement applies only to breach-of-contract damages, and would not affect recovery for Daniels’s claims.
Finally, a provision of the agreement permits the college to recover attorney’s fees against Daniels if it prevails in any action or arbitration that is “permitted” by the Enrollment Agreement or that “aris[es] out of [the Agreement] and the subject matter contained [there]in.” However, while the Enrollment Agreement is silent with respect to Daniels’s recovering fees if she prevails, Virginia College disavows any interpretation of it that would preclude Daniels from recovering attorneys’ fees to which she might otherwise be entitled under the arbitration rules. Given Virginia College’s concessions regarding the meaning of its provisions, enforcing the Enrollment Agreement’s arbitration clause is not unconscionable under Mississippi law.
The district court’s judgment is AFFIRMED.
Wilson v. Bicycle South, Inc., 915 F.2d 1503; 1990 U.S. App. LEXIS 18903; 31 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. (Callaghan) 682Posted: September 21, 2014
Wilson v. Bicycle South, Inc., 915 F.2d 1503; 1990 U.S. App. LEXIS 18903; 31 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. (Callaghan) 682
Lois Elaine Wilson, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Bicycle South, Inc., a Georgia Corporation, et al., Defendants-Appellees
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT
915 F.2d 1503; 1990 U.S. App. LEXIS 18903; 31 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. (Callaghan) 682
October 30, 1990
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: As Amended.
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. No.1: 85-cv-2658-CAM; Moye, Jr., Judge.
COUNSEL: Robert H. Benfield, Jr., Middleton & Anderson, Atlanta, Georgia, for Appellant.
For Trek Bicycle: Stephen F. Dermer, Smith Gambrell & Russell, Atlanta, Georgia.
For Bicycle South: Jonathan Mark Engram, Swift Currie McGhee & Hiers, Thomas E. McCarter, Atlanta, Georgia.
For Opportunities, Inc.: Tommy T. Holland, Carter & Ansley, Christopher N. Shuman, Atlanta, Georgia.
For Skid Lid: Palmer H. Ansley, Long Weinberg Ansley & Wheeler, David A. Sapp, Atlanta, Georgia.
JUDGES: Clark, Circuit Judge, Morgan and Hill, * Senior Circuit Judges.
* See, Rule 34-2(b), Rules of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
OPINION BY: HILL
[*1504] HILL, Senior Circuit Judge
This appeal concerns a products liability action based upon alleged breach of warranty, strict liability, and negligence resulting in injuries to Lois Elaine Wilson (“Wilson”), appellant. Wilson incurred head injuries during an accident in Georgia while on a cross-country bicycle trip. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Wilson and against one defendant on a bicycle helmet defect claim, and against Wilson and in favor of three defendants on a bicycle wheel defect claim. The district court granted a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the helmet claim. Plaintiff appeals [*1505] this grant and also alleges several other errors by the district court concerning the bicycle wheel claim.
A. Issues Presented
Appellant raises four distinct categories of issues on appeal. First, appellant claims that the district court erred in granting appellee Skid Lid Manufacturing Company’s (“Skid Lid”) motion for a judgment notwithstanding [**2] the verdict. Second, appellant contends that the district court improperly commented on the evidence. Third, she asserts that the district court committed reversible error by refusing to admit “similar accident” evidence. Finally, appellant maintains that the district court erred in charging the jury on the defense of “legal accident.”
We hold that the trial court did not err in granting the JNOV. Nor do the trial judge’s comments on the evidence provide cause for reversal. Similarly, we find appellant’s third and fourth contentions to be meritless.
B. Factual and Procedural History
On January 6, 1983, appellant purchased a Trek 614 touring bicycle. Trek Bicycle Corporation (“Trek”) manufactured the bicycle, Opportunities, Incorporated (“Opportunities”) assembled the bike’s rear wheel according to Trek’s specifications, and Bicycle South, Inc. (“Bicycle South”) sold the bike to appellant. The latter three parties will be referred to collectively as “the bicycle defendants.” On February 9, 1983, appellant also purchased, from a company not a party to this lawsuit, a bicycle helmet manufactured by Skid Lid. Rather than purchase a helmet covering her entire head, appellant chose [**3] one that only covered the top half of her head, coming down to about the top of her ears.
Wilson purchased the bike and helmet for a cross-country bicycling trip from Florida to California. Eight days into her trip, on April 23, 1983, Wilson sustained head injuries in a fall from the bicycle while she was riding downhill on a two-lane Georgia highway between Plains and Americus, Georgia. Between January 6 and April 23, Wilson had ridden approximately 1200 to 1600 miles on the bicycle.
The cause of appellant’s fall is disputed by the parties. Appellant maintains that the rear wheel collapsed into a saddle-like shape as a result of an improper manufacturing process and a failure to retrue the spokes of the wheel after the rim was assembled. Under this theory, the tension in the wheel, which was not released after the rim was formed and the wheel assembled, caused the spokes to loosen after use and led to the collapse. The bicycle defendants, on the other hand, maintain that the fall did not result from the wheel collapse, but that the wheel collapsed as a result of appellant’s fall from the bike. 1
1 The actual cause of the fall does not affect the issues currently before this Court.
[**4] The point of initial impact between Ms. Wilson’s head and the pavement was behind her left ear and below the edge of the helmet. As a result of the impact, she claims that she sustained three injuries. The first two, a basilar skull fracture and occipital scalp laceration, were not particularly serious and do not comprise the more serious damage. The more serious injury was a “contre-coup” (an injury to the opposite side of the head from the point of initial impact) brain contusion.
Alleging defects in the bicycle wheel and helmet, Ms. Wilson filed a complaint in this products liability action based upon breach of warranty, strict liability, and negligence. During the trial, appellant attempted to introduce evidence of a prior bicycle wheel defect claim brought by another party against Trek, Opportunities, and another bicycle store, alleging that the incidents were substantially similar. The trial court excluded the earlier incident.
At the beginning of his charge, the trial judge explained to the jury:
As a federal judge, I have the right, power, and duty to comment on the facts, to express my opinion with respect thereto . . . but remember, in the last analysis, every factual issue [**5] in this case must be decided by you, by you alone, and anything that anybody else in this room says [*1506] about the facts is a mere opinion, not binding upon you.
Subsequently, referring to witness testimony, the judge again emphasized that “as sole judges of the facts, you, the jury, and you only, must determine which of the witnesses you believe and what portion of their testimony you accept and what weight you attach to it.” Prior to analyzing and giving his opinion of the evidence that Ms. Wilson presented, 2 the judge again cautioned the jury that “you, as jurors, are at liberty to disregard each, every, and all comments of the court in arriving at your own findings of the facts.” At the conclusion of his remarks, the trial judge further emphasized:
Let me stress as strongly as I can that you, the jury, are the sole and only judges of the facts. The past several minutes I have been giving you [**6] my opinion with respect to matters committed solely to your decision, not mine. My comments are and can only be expressions of a personal opinion and are not binding on you in any way, shape, or form. Remember that in considering every issue in this case, including those to which I have just alluded, you must resort to your own recollection of the evidence, not that which I have just stated. . . . You must, in the diligent performance of your duty, rely on your recollection of all the evidence and not merely that which I may have called to your attention and emphasized.
2 The trial judge focused especially on items of derogatory information with respect to appellant’s expert, Mr. James Green.
On April 13, 1989, the jury returned a verdict in favor of appellant against appellee Skid Lid in the amount of $ 265,000 on the helmet claim. On the bicycle wheel claim, the jury returned a verdict against appellant and in favor of the bicycle defendants.
On April 21, 1989, appellee Skid Lid moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and on May 24 the trial court entered an Order granting the motion. The court did so because it found that Ms. Wilson had “assumed the risk of injury as to parts of her body patently not covered by the helmet.”
A. The Helmet & the Judgment Notwithstanding the [**7] Verdict
[HN1] We review the district court’s grant of a JNOV under the same standard as the district court used in determining whether to grant a JNOV. As we stated in Castle v. Sangamo Weston, Inc., 837 F.2d 1550, 1558 (11th Cir.1988):
All of the evidence presented at trial must be considered “in the light and with all reasonable inferences most favorable to the party opposed to the motion.” A motion for judgment n.o.v. should be granted only where “reasonable [people] could not arrive at a contrary verdict. . . .” Where substantial conflicting evidence is presented such that reasonable people “in the exercise of impartial judgment might reach different conclusion, [sic]” the motion should be denied. (citations omitted)
In applying this standard for the sufficiency of evidence, we also look to Georgia substantive law to determine whether Skid Lid deserved judgment as a matter of law. See Erie v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938); Salter v. Westra, 904 F.2d 1517, 1524 (11th Cir.1990).
Defendants in products liability actions have asserted two similar defenses in attempting to steer clear of liability, assumption of the risk and the “open and obvious [**8] rule.” 3 While the trial judge in this case based the JNOV on assumption of the risk, we also address the open and obvious rule because affirmance of the JNOV is proper even if based on a different rationale. See Paisey v. Vitale, 807 F.2d 889, 890 (11th Cir.1986).
3 This rule is also known as the “patent danger rule” and has its roots in a New York decision involving negligence law, Campo v. Scofield, 301 N.Y. 468, 95 N.E.2d 802 (1950). New York later abandoned the rule in Micallef v. Miehle Co., 39 N.Y.2d 376, 384 N.Y.S.2d 115, 348 N.E.2d 571 (1976).
[*1507] We need not reach the assumption of the risk issue if the helmet was not defective because Skid Lid would have breached no duty to Ms. Wilson. We thus initially address the open and obvious rule. [HN2] The open and obvious rule states that a product is not defective if the peril from which injury could result is patent or obvious to the user. Stodghill v. Fiat-Allis Construction Machinery, Inc., 163 Ga. App. 811, 295 S.E.2d 183, 185 (1982). This determination [**9] regarding the peril is made on the basis of an objective view of the product. Weatherby v. Honda Motor Co., Ltd., 195 Ga. App. 169, 393 S.E.2d 64, 66 (1990) (certiorari denied June 21, 1990). In assessing what is obvious, it must be remembered that, contrary to the belief of some, the American public is not child-like. Stodghill is instructive in this respect. In Stodghill, the plaintiff was using a bulldozer manufactured by the defendants to clear felled trees from a construction site when a tree jumped over the bulldozer blade and struck him in the chest. The plaintiff claimed that the machine was defective because it had no protective metal cage surrounding the driver’s seat. The Georgia Court of Appeals recognized that the plaintiff “was obviously aware that the bulldozer he was operating had no protective cage and that the absence of this safety device exposed him to the danger of being injured by anything which might strike the driver’s compartment.” Id. 295 S.E.2d at 184. The court concluded that
“because the failure of the appellees in this case to install a protective cage over the driver’s seat of the bulldozer was an obvious characteristic of the machine [**10] which created no hidden peril and did not prevent the machine from functioning properly for the purpose for which it was designed, it cannot reasonably be considered a design or manufacturing defect under Georgia law.”
Id. at 185.
Similar to the absence of the protective cage on the bulldozer, it is or should be apparent to one who purchases an article of clothing or protective gear that the article can only protect that portion of the body which is covered. A person purchasing a bullet proof vest cannot realistically claim that he expected it to protect him from a bullet in the leg. Likewise, one purchasing a sleeveless t-shirt cannot protest that it should have protected him from a scrape on the arm. In the case at bar, rather than selecting a helmet covering her entire head, appellant elected to purchase a helmet that she knew covered only the top half of her head. She did know, or certainly should have known, that the helmet with less extensive coverage would not protect her from an impact to an area not covered by the helmet. Unlike a full helmet, the half-helmet was not designed to protect against impacts anywhere on the head. The extent of coverage was “an obvious characteristic [**11] of the [helmet] that created no hidden peril and did not prevent the [helmet] from functioning properly for the purpose for which it was designed.” Stodghill, 295 S.E.2d at 185. We thus find, as a matter of law, that the helmet was not defective under Georgia law. 4
4 We note that Georgia courts have been careful to avoid treating the American public as children where a peril is obvious or patent and the product thus not defective. In Weatherby, the five-year old plaintiff had been a passenger on an off-road motorcycle that did not have its gas cap in place. During the ride over uneven terrain, gasoline splashed from the open tank and ignited, causing burns to the plaintiff. The court found that an open fuel tank “surely suggests the possibility of spillage,” that because the fuel tank is located above the engine “gravity can be anticipated to bring the spilled fuel in contact with the engine and spark plug,” and that the dangers of spilled gasoline coming into contact with an engine are generally known. 393 S.E.2d at 67. The court consequently concluded as a matter of law that the peril of an open fuel tank resting over the engine and its spark plug was “an obvious or patent peril,” and that the product was thus not defective. Id. at 68.
[**12] Even if the failure to cover the full head were a defect, it is still beyond peradventure that appellant assumed the risk of injury to the parts of her body patently not covered by the helmet. [HN3] Under Georgia law, “‘if the user or consumer discovers the defect and is aware of the danger, but nevertheless proceeds unreasonably to make use of the product, he is [*1508] barred from recovery.’” 5 Center Chemical Co. v. Parzini, 234 Ga. 868, 870, 218 S.E.2d 580 (1975) (citation omitted). The first part of the test, actual knowledge of the defect and danger, is fulfilled because appellant had subjective knowledge that the helmet she purchased only covered a portion of her head. Had appellant, somehow, been unaware that the helmet only partially covered her head, the result might be different. As counsel for appellant admitted at oral argument, however, there is no evidence that she thought the helmet covered more of her head than it did cover, or that she believed it would protect her from injury to parts of her body not covered. Nor do we find, after our careful review of the transcript, any testimony to that effect. As for the second portion of the test, unreasonable use, it seems axiomatic [**13] to say that it is unreasonable to use a helmet to protect a portion of the body that the helmet clearly does not cover.
5 This test, in contrast to the open and obvious rule, looks to the subjective perceptions of the user or injured party. Another difference between assumption of the risk and the open and obvious rule is that while the latter places the burden of proof on the plaintiff, the former places it on the defendant. Weatherby, 393 S.E.2d at 66. See also Annotation, Products Liability: modern status of rule that there is no liability for patent or obvious dangers, 35 A.L.R. 4th 861, 865 (1985) (discussing open and obvious rule and the differences from assumption of the risk).
In sum, the district judge properly granted appellee Skid Lid’s motion for a JNOV.
B. Comments on the Evidence
At the close of the case, the district judge employed the time-honored, though little used, right and duty of a federal trial judge to comment on the evidence. As the Supreme Court stated in Quercia v. United [**14] States, 289 U.S. 466, 469, 53 S. Ct. 698, 698-99, 77 L. Ed. 1321 (1932):
[HN4] In a trial by jury in a federal court, the judge is not a mere moderator, but is the governor of the trial for the purpose of assuring its proper conduct and of determining questions of law. (citation omitted) In charging the jury, the trial judge is not limited to instructions of an abstract sort. It is within his province, whenever he thinks it necessary, to assist the jury in arriving at a just conclusion by explaining and commenting upon the evidence, by drawing their attention to the parts of it which he thinks important; and he may express his opinion upon the facts, provided he makes it clear to the jury that all matters of fact are submitted to their determination. (citations omitted) Sir Matthew Hale thus described the function of the trial judge at common law: “Herein he is able, in matters of law emerging upon the evidence, to direct them; and also, in matters of fact to give them a great light and assistance by his weighing the evidence before them, and observing where the question and knot of the business lies, and by showing them his opinion even in matters of fact; which is a great advantage and [**15] light to laymen. (citation omitted)
The trial judge will not be reversed unless his comments “excite a prejudice which would preclude a fair and dispassionate consideration of the evidence.” Id. at 472, 53 S. Ct. at 700. See also United States v. Hope, 714 F.2d 1084, 1088 (11th Cir.1983) (“[a] trial judge may comment upon the evidence as long as he instructs the jury that it is the sole judge of the facts and that it is not bound by his comments and as long as the comments are not so highly prejudicial that an instruction to that effect cannot cure the error”). 6 It is only where [*1509] this prejudice exists that the substantial rights of the parties are affected and Fed.R.Civ.P. 61 permits disturbing a judgment. 7 In assessing whether this prejudice exists and has affected the parties’ substantial rights, we consider the record as a whole and not merely isolated remarks. See Newman v. A.E. Staley Mfg. Co., 648 F.2d 330, 334-335 (5th Cir. Unit B June 1981). “The test is not whether the charge was faultless in every particular but whether the jury was misled in any way and whether it had understanding of the issues and its duty to determine those issues.” Bass v. International [**16] Bhd. of Boilermakers, 630 F.2d 1058, 1065 (5th Cir.1980) (citations omitted).
6 Other circuits have adopted similar language regarding a trial judge’s right to comment on the evidence. See, e.g., White v. City of Norwalk, 900 F.2d 1421 (9th Cir.1990); Johnson v. Helmerich & Payne, Inc., 892 F.2d 422 (5th Cir.1990); Vaughn v. Willis, 853 F.2d 1372 (7th Cir.1988); United States v. Munz, 542 F.2d 1382 (10th Cir.1976), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1104, 97 S. Ct. 1133, 51 L. Ed. 2d 555 (1977); Mihalic v. Texaco, Inc., 377 F.2d 978 (3d Cir.1967); Meadows v. United States, 144 F.2d 751 (4th Cir.1944); A number of practitioners and commentators have also assessed the role of the judge in a jury trial. See, e.g., Bancroft, Jury Instructions, Communications, Juror Substitutions and Special/Partial Verdicts: Selected Topics — The Principal Law, 340 Prac.L.Inst. 611 (1987); Loeffler, Project — Seventeenth Annual Review of Criminal Procedure: United States Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals 1986-1987 (III. Trial: Authority of the Trial Judge), 76 Geo.L.J. 986 (1988); Murphy, Errors in the Charge, 14 Litig. 39 (1988).
7 [HN6] Fed.R.Civ.P. 61 provides in part:
“No error . . . is ground for granting a new trial . . . unless refusal to take such action appears to the court inconsistent with substantial justice. The court at every stage of the proceeding must disregard any error or defect in the proceeding which does not affect the substantial rights of the parties.”
Appellants allege that the district judge went too far in commenting on the evidence and on the testimony of their expert, Mr. Green. We do not doubt that a trial judge could misuse his authority. 8 After careful review of the record, however, while we are not prepared in this case to suggest the outside limits on a trial judge’s comments, we are satisfied that the district judge here did not overstep his bounds. As recounted in Part I.B. of this opinion, he went to great lengths to assure that the jury understood that it was the sole fact-finder in the case. 9 When his remarks are considered in their entirety, on the facts of this case we find no prejudice affecting the substantial rights of the parties.
8 Perhaps one of the best examples of a jury charge that would constitute an abuse of authority today, but was permitted prior to Quercia, is Judge Emory Speer’s eight and one-half hour, 92 page charge in United States v. Greene, 146 F. 803 (S.D.Ga.1906), cert. denied, 207 U.S. 596, 28 S. Ct. 261, 52 L. Ed. 357 (1907). In testimony before a congressional committee looking into the possibility of impeaching Judge Speer, Alexander Lawrence (one of Greene’s defense attorneys) characterized the judge and his charge as follows:
He knows the jury, knows how to play on their passions, on their prejudices, as no living man that I have seen could do it; he has a faculty for marshalling evidence that I have never seen another living man able to marshal; and in that Greene & Gaynor case he charged that jury for eight hours and I will challenge any six prosecuting attorneys in the United States, from the Attorney General down, all of them together, to take that mass of testimony taking three months’ time that Judge Speer heard, and then put it down in as ingenious an argument against the defense as Judge Speer put it in that thing. It was a masterpiece of oratory, but a very poor thing when you come down to look at it from a judicial standpoint.
H. Res. 234, 63rd Cong., 2d Sess. (1914) (Minority Report of Representative Volstead).
Since, Quercia, many appeals courts have overturned cases where the trial judge has gone too far. See, e.g., Bentley v. Stromberg-Carlson Corp., 638 F.2d 9, 11 (2d Cir.1981) (trial judge’s comments to the jury gave all the arguments for the defendant, being “tantamount to directing a verdict” for defendant); McCullough v. Beech Aircraft Corp., 587 F.2d 754, 761 (5th Cir.1979) (trial judge’s mistaken assertions virtually destroyed appellant’s circumstantial case, requiring reversal); Maheu v. Hughes Tool Co., 569 F.2d 459, 471-472 (9th Cir.1978) (trial judge’s comments amounted to “personal character reference” for witness and thus “went too far”).
9 It seems that the jurors responded to the trial judge’s direction that they were the sole fact-finders. The judge brought to their attention that appellant’s expert had been prepared to testify that the helmet was defective because of one set of facts and then shifted his reasoning when that set of facts was disproven; nevertheless, the jury still awarded appellant $ 265,000 against the helmet manufacturer.
In the course of his remarks, appellant also contends that the trial judge improperly restricted her case to the testimony of her one expert, Mr. Green. In stressing the importance of Mr. Green’s testimony to appellant’s case, the judge stated as follows:
In this case, as in every case, there are the two big main issues: one, liability, and, two, the amount of any damages proximately flowing therefrom. The plaintiff has the burden of proving each and every element of the plaintiff’s case. The plaintiff’s entire case here, and in meeting the elements which must be proved, rests upon the expert testimony, [*1510] that is, the expert opinion, of Mr. Green. Except for Mr. Green’s testimony, the plaintiff [**19] has not made out a case of liability. With Mr. Green’s testimony, the plaintiff has made out a legal case on liability; therefore, the court suggests that the first, immediate, and crucial issue in the case for you to determine is the credibility or the believability of Mr. Green.
After studying the record, we find no merit in appellant’s contention. We are inclined to agree with the trial judge that, without Mr. Green, the case would not have been one for the jury.
In sum, we find that on the facts of this case the trial judge’s comments to the jury, when taken as a whole, neither excited a prejudice affecting the substantial rights of the parties nor incorrectly instructed the jury.
C. The Allegedly Similar Accident
Appellant argues that the trial court erred by refusing to admit evidence of the collapse of another wheel manufactured by appellees Trek and Opportunity. Appellant sought to show appellees’ notice of a defect in the wheel, the magnitude of the danger, appellees’ ability to correct a known defect, the lack of safety for intended purposes, the strength of the product, the standard of care, and causation.
The trial judge denied the proffer on the grounds that the evidence [**20] was not probative because of the necessity for a considerable amount of extrinsic evidence to determine whether the incidents were sufficiently similar to meet the standards of Fed.R.Evid. 403. 10 [HN7] A trial judge has broad discretion over the admission of evidence, Borden, Inc. v. Florida East Coast Ry. Co., 772 F.2d 750, 754 (11th Cir.1985), and we find that the district judge did not abuse his discretion. 11
10 The cause of the alleged similar incident had never been established because that case settled out of court. The parties in the instant case vigorously dispute the actual cause, demonstrating that even had the trial court reached the issue of whether the two incidents were similar this issue would have required a trial within a trial.
11 Because of our disposition of this issue, we need not reach the question of whether the two incidents were actually similar, and if so, whether the prior incident would have been properly excluded under Fed.R.Evid. 403.
D. The Charge on “Legal Accident”
In his [**21] instructions to the jury, the judge included a charge on “legal accident.” 12 To determine whether such a charge is appropriate, we first look to Georgia substantive law. See Erie v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938); McCullough v. Beech Aircraft Corp., 587 F.2d 754, 759 (5th Cir.1979). [HN8] Georgia law permits a charge on “legal accident” where there is evidence in the record authorizing a finding that the occurrence was an “accident.” 13 Chadwick v. Miller, 169 Ga. App. 338, 344, 312 [*1511] S.E.2d 835, 840 (1983). 14 Where appropriate, the charge is valid in a products liability case. Kemp v. Bell-View, Inc., 179 Ga. App. 577, 579, 346 S.E.2d 923, 926 (1986).
12 This portion of the charge reads as follows:
Now, let me tell you that the mere fact that an accident happened or an occurrence happened from which injury stemmed standing alone does not permit a jury to draw any inference that the occurrence was caused by anyone’s negligence or by any defect.
Now, I have used the word “accident” loosely, as I think is commonly the practice, is interchangeable with the word occurrence producing injury, but in Georgia law accidental injury means, in connection with personal injury actions such as this, any injury which occurs without being caused by the negligence either of the plaintiff or of the defendants. The idea of accident removes responsibility for the cause of the injury if found to have occurred by reason of a legal accident as defined under Georgia law, that is, one which is caused by the negligence neither of the plaintiff or the defendants.
It is necessary that you find from a preponderance of the evidence in this case, in order to find for the plaintiff, that the occurrence and/or resulting injuries were the result of defect and/or negligence and/or breach of warranty to the exclusion of legal accident, as I have defined that term to you, because the plaintiff has the burden of proof, as I will charge you later, to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the occurrence did, in fact, result from defect and/or negligence and/or breach of warranty, to the exclusion of legal accident.
13 [HN9] “Accident” is defined as “an occurrence which takes place in the absence of negligence and for which no one would be liable.” Chadwick, 169 Ga. App. at 344, 312 S.E.2d 835.
14 Appellant cites Seaboard Coastline R.R. Co. v. Delahunt, 179 Ga. App. 647, 347 S.E.2d 627 (1986), for the proposition that a charge on “legal accident” can be given only where there is no evidence of negligence on the part of either party. The Georgia Court of Appeals recognized in Stiltjes v. Ridco Exterminating Co., 192 Ga. App. 778, 386 S.E.2d 696, 697 (1989), however, that Delahunt had misstated the law in Georgia.
Because the manner of giving jury instructions is procedural rather than substantive, it is governed by federal rather than state law. McCullough, 587 F.2d at 759. In reviewing alleged errors in jury instructions, we must determine whether the trial court’s charge, considered as a whole, “sufficiently instructs the jury so that the jurors understand the issues involved and are not misled.” Mark Seitman & Assocs., Inc. v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 837 F.2d 1527, 1531 (11th [**23] Cir.1988) (citation omitted). We will only reverse if we are left with “a substantial and ineradicable doubt as to whether the jury was properly guided in its deliberations.” Id. (citation omitted).
After careful review, we find evidence in the record that supports a charge on legal accident as defined by Georgia law. We are therefore satisfied that the district judge properly guided the jury with respect to this issue.
For the foregoing reasons, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.