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De Castro v. Odetah Camping Resort, Inc., 2015 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2297

De Castro v. Odetah Camping Resort, Inc., 2015 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2297

Adelson Luiz De Castro, Administrator of the Estate of Jose Luiz De Castro v. Odetah Camping Resort, Inc.

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SUPERIOR COURT OF CONNECTICUT, JUDICIAL DISTRICT OF FAIRFIELD AT BRIDGEPORT

2015 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2297

September 2, 2015, Decided

September 2, 2015, Filed

NOTICE: THIS DECISION IS UNREPORTED AND MAY BE SUBJECT TO FURTHER APPELLATE REVIEW. COUNSEL IS CAUTIONED TO MAKE AN INDEPENDENT DETERMINATION OF THE STATUS OF THIS CASE.

JUDGES: [*1] Michael P. Kamp, J.

OPINION BY: Michael P. Kamp

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE DEFENDANT’S MOTION TO SET ASIDE THE VERDICT AND MOTION FOR JUDGMENT NOTWITHSTANDING THE VERDICT

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The defendant, Odetah Camping Resort, Inc., has filed a renewal of its motion for directed verdict and a motion to set aside the jury’s verdict.1 The trial commenced on April 28, 2015, and evidence concluded on May 6, 2015, when the defense rested its case. The jury received the charge on the law on May 6, 2015. On May 6, 2015, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, Adelson Luiz DeCastro, Administrator of the Estate of Jose Luiz DeCastro, and awarded total damages of $229,155.96. Regarding the question of comparative negligence, the jury found the plaintiff’s decedent, Jose DeCastro, was 49% responsible for his own injuries.

1 The defendant originally moved for a directed verdict at the close of the plaintiff’s case in chief. At that time, the court reserved decision, and the defendant commenced its defense. On close of the defendant’s case, the matter was submitted to the jury.

The defendant filed its motion to set aside the verdict on May 15, 2015. The plaintiff filed its objection to the defendant’s motion [*2] on May 19, 2015. On June 22, 2015, the court heard the matter at short calendar and took the papers.

The defendant argues in its motion that the plaintiff failed to prove beyond the realm of surmise and speculation that the defendant’s negligence was the proximate cause of the death of the decedent. This argument is based upon a lack of evidence as to what actually caused the decedent to drown.

II

FACTS

After a trial, the jury could have found as follows. On July 7, 2011, the decedent and a group of friends went to the defendant resort located in Bozrah, Connecticut. In order to gain entrance, the decedent paid an entrance fee. The defendant is an approximately 100-acre campground that offers multiple recreational activities. In addition to facilities to accommodate overnight camping, the defendant offers sporting facilities, which include a pool as well as volleyball, tennis, and basketball courts. The defendant abuts a large, thirty-two-acre freshwater lake, which includes a small beach, and offers swimming and boating activities. A portion of the lake that is adjacent to the beach has a designated swim area. The boundaries of the swim area are designated by a rope line and buoys. Just [*3] beyond the roped off swimming area are two inflatable platforms. One was described as a platform or trampoline, and the other was described as an “iceberg.” Both inflatable devices were attractions to be used by the resort guests. The defendant did not provide lifeguards at the pool or lake swim area. A single sign was posted at one end of the beach area, indicating: “No Lifeguard on Duty. Swim at Your Own Risk.” No employees of the defendant directly supervised the lake swimming area.

On July 9, 2011, the decedent and his friend, Saulo Sousa, entered the designated swimming area for the purpose of swimming out to the trampoline just beyond the buoy line. When Sousa reached the rope line, he observed the decedent immediately behind him in the water. The depth of the water at this location was approximately six feet. As Sousa lifted the rope line to duck under it, he observed the decedent diving forward and under the rope. When Sousa reached the trampoline, he climbed on it but did not observe the decedent. After spending a few minutes on the trampoline, Sousa reentered the water and swam to the shore. After unsuccessfully attempting to locate the decedent, employees of the defendant [*4] were notified that he was missing. After a brief search, 911 emergency services were dispatched, and Bozrah firefighters and rescue personnel responded to the scene. When notified that the decedent was last seen in the designated swim area near the buoy line, firefighter Colin Laffey entered the water and located the decedent floating unresponsive just below the surface of the water just inside the buoy line. Laffey testified that he located the decedent in an area where the depth of the water was less than six feet. The decedent was brought to shore, and CPR was administered. The decedent was then transported by ambulance to Backus Hospital, but never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead. A postmortem autopsy determined the cause of death to be asphyxia due to submersion. The postmortem examination was negative for any signs of illness, traumatic injury, or any preexisting medical condition or disease. A toxicology examination was negative for the presence of any drugs, alcohol, or medication.

The decedent’s drowning was unwitnessed despite the fact that there were numerous people in the water and on the beach. Although other members of the decedent’s group, including his [*5] girlfriend, were on the beach adjacent to the swimming area, no one saw him in distress or struggling in the water. He was identified by his friends as a good or strong swimmer.

III

DISCUSSION

Practice Book §16-37 provides, in relevant part: “Whenever a motion for a directed verdict made at any time after the close of the plaintiff’s case in chief is denied or for any reason is not granted, the judicial authority is deemed to have submitted the action to the jury subject to a later determination of the legal questions raised by the motion.” “Directed verdicts are not favored . . . A trial court should direct a verdict only when a jury could not reasonably and legally have reached any other conclusion . . . In reviewing the trial court’s decision to direct a verdict in favor of a defendant we must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff . . . Although it is the jury’s right to draw logical deductions and make reasonable inferences from the facts proven . . . it may not resort to mere conjecture and speculation . . . A directed verdict is justified if . . . the evidence is so weak that it would be proper for the court to set aside a verdict rendered for the other party.” (Internal [*6] quotation marks omitted.) Riccio v. Harbour Village Condominium Assn., Inc., 281 Conn. 160, 163, 914 A.2d 529 (2007). “A verdict may be directed . . . where the claim is that there is insufficient evidence to sustain a favorable verdict.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Beale v. Yale-New Haven Hospital, 89 Conn.App. 556, 565-66, 874 A.2d 259 (2005).

Likewise, “[a] trial court may set aside a verdict on a finding that the verdict is manifestly unjust because, given the evidence presented, the jury mistakenly applied a legal principle or because there is no evidence to which the legal principles of the case could be applied . . . A verdict should not be set aside, however, where it is apparent that there was some evidence on which the jury might reasonably have reached its conclusion . . . This limitation on a trial court’s discretion results from the constitutional right of litigants to have issues of fact determined by a jury.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Deas v. Diaz, 121 Conn.App. 826, 841, 998 A.2d 200, cert. denied, 298 Conn. 905, 3 A.3d 69 (2010), rev’d on other grounds, Saleh v. Ribeiro Trucking, LLC, 303 Conn. 276, 32 A.3d 318 (2011).

“[T]o establish a prima facie case, the proponent must submit evidence which, if credited, is sufficient to establish the fact or facts which it is adduced to prove . . . [T]he evidence offered by the plaintiff is to be taken as true and interpreted in the light most favorable to [the plaintiff], and every reasonable inference is to be drawn in [the plaintiff’s] [*7] favor.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Cadle Co. v. Errato, 71 Conn.App. 447, 455-56, 802 A.2d 887, cert. denied, 262 Conn. 918, 812 A.2d 861 (2002). “The credibility and weight to be attributed to any evidence offered [at trial] is solely within the province of the jury.” Murteza v. State, 7 Conn.App. 196, 208-09, 508 A.2d 449, cert. denied, 200 Conn. 803, 510 A.2d 191 (1986). “[I]t is not the function of [the trial] court to sit as the seventh juror when [it] review[s] the sufficiency of the evidence . . . rather, [it] must determine, in the light most favorable to sustaining the verdict, whether the totality of the evidence, including reasonable inferences therefrom, supports the [trier’s] verdict . . . In making this determination, [t]he evidence must be given the most favorable construction in support of the verdict of which it is reasonably capable . . . In other words, [i]f the [trier] could reasonably have reached its conclusion, the verdict must stand, even if [the trial] court disagrees with it.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) O’Connor v. Larocque, 302 Conn. 562, 612, 31 A.3d 1 (2011).

“In order to make out a prima facie case of negligence, the plaintiff must submit evidence that, if credited, is sufficient to establish duty, breach of duty, causation, and actual injury . . . A defendant’s duty and breach of duty is measured by a reasonable care standard, which is the care [that] a reasonably prudent person would use under [*8] the circumstances . . . After the plaintiff establishes that the defendant did not exercise reasonable care, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injuries. To do so, the plaintiff must first establish causation in fact, that is, that the injury would not have occurred but for the actor’s conduct . . . The plaintiff then must show proximate cause . . . Proximate cause requires that the defendant’s conduct [was] a substantial factor in bringing about the plaintiff’s injuries and that there was an unbroken sequence of events that tied [the plaintiff’s] injuries to the [defendant’s conduct] . . . Proximate cause does not require the plaintiff to remove from the realm of possibility all other potential causes of the accident . . . Instead, the plaintiff must establish that it is more likely than not that the cause on which the plaintiff relies was in fact a proximate cause of the accident. The more likely than not standard ensures that the causal connection . . . [is] based [on] more than conjecture or surmise.” (Citations omitted; emphasis omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Rawls v. Progressive Northern Insurance Company, 310 Conn. 768, 776-77, 83 A.3d 576 (2014).

The defendant’s primary argument is that no one [*9] witnessed the decedent’s drowning, and there was no evidence offered as to what caused him to drown. The defendant relies on Wu v. Fairfield, 204 Conn. 435, 528 A.2d 364 (1987). In Wu, the plaintiff’s decedent who was fifteen years old, went to Lake Mohegan, a freshwater lake, with her mother and two brothers for an afternoon of swimming. Id., 437. There was a designated swim area marked by a buoy line. At the time of the occurrence, there were four lifeguards on duty. Id. Those lifeguards had observed that the plaintiff’s decedent was a poor swimmer and had warned her twice to return to the shallow portion of the designated swim area. Id. When an approaching storm prompted the lifeguards to clear the water, the plaintiff’s decedent did not return to shore. Id. After a search, one of the lifeguards found the decedent’s body at the bottom of the lake in the designated swim area but beyond the shallow portion. Id., 437-38. The plaintiff alleged that the town and several of its employees, the lifeguards, were negligent in the performance of their duties. Id., 436. A jury returned a verdict for the defendants. Id. The plaintiff then filed a motion to set aside the verdict, which motion was denied. Id. In affirming the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s [*10] motion to set aside the verdict, the court held that “[w]hile it is undisputed that the decedent drowned, there was no evidence tying any negligence on the defendant lifeguards’ part to her death . . . Here, the plaintiff presented no evidence other than that the victim perished in an unwitnessed drowning. The plaintiff failed to establish an unbroken sequence of events causally flowing from the defendant lifeguards’ arguably negligent supervision to the decedent’s drowning.” Id., 440.

In this case, the plaintiff’s May 4, 2015 amended complaint contained two specifications of negligence as to the conduct of the defendant. The first allegation was that the defendant was negligent in failing to provide lifeguards. The second allegation was that the defendant was negligent when it knew or should have known of the danger associated with encouraging its guests to swim to its recreational flotation devices, yet failed to take reasonable steps to secure their safety in doing so. In response to jury interrogatories submitted by the court the jury found that the defendant was negligent with regard to the second specification but not the first. With regard to the claim of negligence concerning encouraging [*11] swimmers to use the flotation devices, the plaintiff relied on testimony that the owner’s manual for the two devices contained warnings that recommended users wear life vests. Although life vests were available in a shed adjacent to the lake swim area, the defendant did not require guests entering the lake or using any of the flotation devices to wear them. In addition, the plaintiff argued that the defendant failed to properly supervise and monitor the swimming area and had an inadequate emergency rescue plan.

The plaintiff offered the testimony of Gerald Dworkin, an aquatic safety expert. Dworkin offered opinion testimony regarding the defendant’s lack of safety measures including its failure to have lifeguards monitoring the swim area. Dworkin was also critical of the defendant’s lack of an emergency safety plan. Dworkin did not, however, offer any opinion testimony as to what actually caused the decedent to drown. He affirmed that it was an unwitnessed drowning. In addition, although the owner’s manuals for the flotation devices recommended the use of life vests, the decedent was not using either device when he drowned; the little evidence there is indicates he never left the designated [*12] swim area. The flotation devices were located outside that designated area.

Here, as in Wu, the plaintiff presented no evidence other than that the decedent died in an unwitnessed drowning. There was no evidence as to what caused the decedent to drown. In the absence of any such evidence, any number of factual possibilities could explain this accident. Without any evidence as to what caused this unfortunate incident, only speculation and conjecture could link the plaintiff’s drowning to the negligent conduct of the defendant. The plaintiff failed to present any evidence to establish an unbroken sequence of events causally flowing from the defendant’s conduct that the jury found negligent to the decedent’s drowning. “The establishment of proximate cause is an essential element of a negligence claim and the parties recognize that if proximate cause is lacking, the plaintiff cannot prevail.” Wu v. Town Of Fairfield, supra, 204 Conn. 441.

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, based on the evidence presented by the plaintiff, no reasonable juror could find that the negligence of the defendant caused or was a substantial factor in causing the decedent’s death by drowning. The lack of any evidence as to what [*13] caused this drowning is fatal to the plaintiff’s case.

IV

CONCLUSION

Because the plaintiff failed to establish that the negligent conduct of the defendant was the proximate cause of the decedent’s drowning, the defendant’s motion to set aside the verdict is granted. Judgment may enter for the defendant.

KAMP, J.

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