Knarr v. Chapman School Of Seamanship, 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5351

Knarr v. Chapman School Of Seamanship, 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5351

Jean Knarr & Lester Knarr v. Chapman School Of Seamanship



2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5351

April 14, 2000, Decided

April 14, 2000, Filed









April 14, 2000

The Defendant in this personal injury action has filed a motion for summary judgment. It argues that the Plaintiffs have failed to present any expert testimony to support their contention that the Defendant violated Coast Guard regulations and Florida state laws and codes that would constitute negligence per se pursuant to Florida law. Without the ability to prove negligence per se, Defendant argues that Plaintiffs’ claims are all barred by the release Mrs. Knarr signed.

[HN1] Summary judgment is warranted where the pleadings and discovery, as well as any affidavits, 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. Fed. R. Civ. Pr. 56. [HN2] The moving [*2] party has the burden of demonstrating the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986). [HN3] When ruling on a summary judgment motion, the court must construe the evidence and any reasonable inferences drawn from it in favor of the non-moving party. Tigg Corp. v. Dow Corning Corp., 822 F.2d 358, 361 (3d Cir. 1987).

Construing the evidence in favor of the Plaintiffs, as we are required to do at this stage of the proceedings, reveals the following. Plaintiff, Jean Knarr, was a student at the Chapman School of Seamanship, (“Chapman”). In March of 1997, Mrs. Knarr slipped and fell on one of the wet, wooden ladder steps, while disembarking from a ship, owned and operated by Chapman. To stop her fall, she attempted to reach for a railing on the right side of the ladder. Unfortunately, there was no railing on the right side of the ladder. As a result of the fall, Mrs. Knarr fractured her right foot, ankle, and leg, and suffered other bruises and lacerations.

Before the accident took place, Mrs. Knarr signed an agreement to indemnify Chapman for any suit or claim arising [*3] from the use of Chapman’s equipment.

I, the undersigned, for myself … and all those claiming by, through or under me, for and in consideration of being allowed to use the equipment, motors and vessels … owned by … the Chapman School of Seamanship, Inc. … hereby forever release and indemnify said Chapman School of Seamanship, Inc. from any … bodily injury … suit or claim arising out of the use of any equipment, motors or vessels, whether or not such … bodily injury … is based upon the sole negligence of Chapman School of Seamanship … .

(Chapman Application/Registration Form).

In denying an earlier motion for summary judgment, the Honorable Marvin Katz concluded that although the indemnification agreement protected the Defendant from liability arising from mere negligence, it could not protect itself from claims arising from negligence per se.

[HN4] While, under Florida law, contracts indemnifying a party against its own negligence will be enforced if the language of the contract is clear and unequivocal, see Charles Poe Masonry v. Spring Lock Scaffolding Rental Equip. Co., 374 So. 2d 487, 489 (Fla. 1979)(citation omitted), a party [*4] cannot indemnify itself against negligence per se. See John’s Pass Seafood Co. v. Weber, 369 So. 2d 616, 618 (Fl. 2d Dist. Ct. App. 1979)(holding such indemnification is against public policy).

(Order, 9/9/99). Judge Katz found that there were unresolved issues of fact regarding Chapman’s conduct and whether such conduct constituted negligence per se.

Chapman has now filed a second motion for summary judgment, arguing that the Plaintiffs have failed to present any expert testimony supporting their contention that certain conditions on the ship constituted statutory violations, establishing negligence per se. In response, the Plaintiffs present the court with a report and a letter from the engineering firm of Goedken, Liss. Specifically, Harold A. Schwartz, P.E., states that Chapman violated Coast Guard Regulations, Florida laws and codes, and the rules of the State Boating Law Administrators for safe boating certification.

In the report, however, Mr. Schwartz fails to identify any specific statute, regulation, or rule, that Chapman violated. In a follow-up letter, Mr. Schwartz refers to a standard adopted by the American National Standards Institute [*5] (“ANSI”), applying to ladders. He opines that the ladder in question fails to comply with the ANSI standard in three respects. First, the top rung is not level with the landing platform. Second, the side rails failed to extend the required 3 feet 6 inches above the top of the landing platform. Finally, the ladder did not have sufficient step across distance (the distance from the centerline of the rungs to the nearest edge of the structure). (Letter of Schwartz, 12/9/99).

The court is left to answer the questions of whether a violation of these ANSI standards is sufficient to constitute negligence per se under Florida law, and if not, are these standards embodied in any governing statutes, a violation of which would constitute negligence per se.

We answer the first question in the negative. [HN5] According to ANSI, it is the “coordinator of the United States private sector voluntary standardization system.” <<UNDERLINE>, 4/11/00> As such, the ANSI standards do not have the force of law, absent adoption by statute, ordinance, or regulation. See Jackson v. H.L. Bouton Co., 630 So. 2d 1173, 1174-75 (Dist. Ct.App.Fl. 1994)(violation [*6] of ANSI standard is “merely evidence of negligence.”); Evans v. Dugger, 908 F.2d 801, 807 (11th Cir. 1990)(ANSI standards regarding handicapped access adopted by Florida regulation); Nicosia v. Otis Elevator Co., 548 So. 2d 854, 855 (Dist. Ct.App.Fl. 1989)(Florida adopted ANSI standard for elevator safety by statute).

However, our own search of Coast Guard regulations reveals that the Coast Guard has adopted the specific ANSI standard regarding the step off space (minimum of 7 inches) for escape ladders on small passenger vessels. 46 C.F.R. § 177.500(k). Therefore, we must determine whether a violation of this Coast Guard regulation constitutes negligence per se pursuant to Florida law.

[HN6] According to the Supreme Court of Florida, negligence per se is established if there is “a violation of any … statute which establishes a duty to take precautions to protect a particular class of persons from a particular injury or type of injury.” DeJesus v. Seaboard Coast Line Railroad Co., 281 So. 2d 198, 201 (Fla. 1973). Although we have been unable to find any case arising out of the state courts in Florida which concludes that a violation [*7] of a Coast Guard regulation amounts to negligence per se, [HN7] the Fifth Circuit and the United States Supreme Court have concluded that such a violation does constitute negligence per se. Reyes v. Vantage Steamship Co., Inc., 609 F.2d 140, 143 (5th Cir. 1980)(“the failure to follow any Coast Guard regulation which is a cause of an injury establishes negligence per se.”); Kernan v. American Dredging Co., 355 U.S. 426, 2 L. Ed. 2d 382, 78 S. Ct. 394 (1958). [HN8] Similarly, Florida state courts have concluded that violations of other legal pronouncements, other than statutes, amount to negligence per se. See First Overseas Investment Corp. v. Cotton, 491 So. 2d 293, 295 (Dist.Ct.App.Fl. 1986)(violation of Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Service Rule constitutes negligence per se); Underwriters at La Concorde v. Airtech Services, Inc., 493 So. 2d 428, 430 (Fla. 1986)(Boyd, J. concurring)(acknowledging expansion of negligence per se concept to include violations of administrative regulations); H.K. Corporation v. Miller, 405 So. 2d 218 (Dist.Ct.App.Fl. 1981)(violation of state administrative [*8] regulation constituted negligence per se); Florida Freight Terminals, Inc. v. Cabanas, 354 So. 2d 1222, 1225 (Dist.Ct.App.Fl. 1978)(violation of FAA regulation constitutes negligence per se). But see Murray v. Briggs, 569 So. 2d 476, 480 (Dist.Ct.App.Fl. 1990)(violation of Interstate Commerce Commission regulation not negligence per se); Jupiter Inlet Corp. v. Brocard, 546 So. 2d 1 (Dist.Ct.App.Fl. 1989)(violation of OSHA regulation does not constitute negligence per se). 1 Therefore, we conclude that a violation of a Coast Guard regulation will constitute negligence per se if the plaintiff is a member of the particular class of persons that the regulation sought to protect and she suffered an injury that the regulation was designed to prevent.

1 In Jones v. Spentonbush-Red Star Co., 155 F.3d 587 (2nd Cir. 1998), the Second Circuit distinguished violations of OSHA and Coast Guard regulations. The court explained that OSHA, itself, states that it should not be construed “to enlarge or diminish or affect in any other manner the common law or statutory rights, duties, or liabilities of employers and employees.” Jones, at 595 (citing 29 U.S.C. § 653(b)(4)). Relying on this language, the court explained that imposing negligence per se for an OSHA violation would “enlarge or diminish or affect … the liability of a maritime employer.” Jones, at 595.

[*9] As indicated above, the only ANSI standard relevant to the issues in this case that has actually been adopted by the Coast Guard, is the one dealing with the minimum distance that must be observed between the rungs of the ladder and the nearest permanent object in back of the ladder (here the side of the cabin). 46 C.F.R. § 177.500(k) requires that this distance be at least 7 inches.

The first question we must answer about this regulation is whether the plaintiff is a member of the particular class of persons that the regulation sought to protect. We have little trouble concluding that she is. The regulation appears at Subchapter T of the Coast Guard regulations. This subchapter specifically covers “Small Passenger Vessels (Under 100 Tons).” There is no dispute here that defendant’s boat is such a vessel. The general provisions of subchapter T state that the provisions of the subchapter apply, inter alia, if the vessel carries less than 150 passengers, but more than 6, so long as at least one of the six passengers is “for hire.” Since she was a student of defendant, using defendant’s boat for instruction, clearly Mrs. Knarr was a passenger “for hire.” Finally, the specific ladder [*10] regulation in question appears under the heading “Escape Requirements.” One could hardly imagine a set of ship regulations more specifically written for the benefit of passengers for hire than ones dealing with escape, as evidenced by certain events that occurred 88 years ago today in the North Atlantic. Cf. The Titanic, 233 U.S. 718, 34 S. Ct. 754, 58 L. Ed. 1171 (1914).

The next question — whether plaintiff suffered an injury that the regulation was designed to prevent — is a bit more difficult to answer. We nevertheless conclude that there are present here at least some genuine issues of material fact that prevent the court from ruling, as a matter of law, that Mrs. Knarr’s injuries could not have been avoided had the ladder complied with this regulation.

Defendant urges us to give a literal reading to plaintiffs’ complaint, and to find from such a reading that Mrs. Knarr has not alleged any fact from which a jury could conclude that the distance between the cabin wall and the ladder step could have proximately caused her fall. We decline to do so. In addition to the well known principle of federal pleading that [HN9] the facts alleged in a complaint need only put the defendant on notice of the [*11] plaintiff’s theories of recovery and need not state each element of proof with specificity, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), we have here at least two specific allegations that could relate to the ladder’s set back distance.

In paragraph 10 a. of the complaint, Mrs. Knarr alleges that “the step upon which she was standing was in an unsafe condition.” In the next subparagraph, 10 b., she claims that “there were slippery substances on the steps which were not visible to the plaintiff.” While neither of these allegations specifically attributes negligence to the ladder set-back distance, we think it would be improper, at this point, to preclude plaintiff’s expert from testifying that the setback distance was related to the general “unsafe condition” allegation, or to the plaintiff’s alleged inability to see the condition of the ladder steps themselves.

Our conclusion would be different, of course, if the record contained either some specific information on the ladder’s actual set-back distance, or on the precise features of the ladder that allegedly caused the accident. At this point, however, we have neither. It thus appears that the case will turn on a resolution of disputed facts, some [*12] of which will, no doubt, be the subject of expert opinions. Accordingly, summary judgment is inappropriate at this time.

An appropriate order follows.


AND NOW, this 14 day of April, 2000, upon consideration of the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, the Plaintiffs’ response, thereto, including the attached reports of his expert engineer, and for the reasons stated in the accompanying Memorandum, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the Motion is DENIED.




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