Yulissa Rodriguez v. Brownstone Exploration & Discover Park, LLC
SUPERIOR COURT OF CONNECTICUT, JUDICIAL DISTRICT OF FAIRFIELD AT BRIDGEPORT
2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 844
May 4, 2017, Decided
May 4, 2017, 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.
CORE TERMS: special defenses, assumption of risk, inherent risks, abolished, own negligence, contractual, legal sufficiency, risks inherent, relieve, legal doctrine, legally insufficient, duty of care, present case, statutory prohibition, legislatively, conceptually, exculpatory, sustaining, pre-injury, favorable, releasing, struck, admit, risky, participating
JUDGES: [*1] Edward T., Krumeich, J.
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION
Plaintiff Yulissa Rodriguez has moved to strike the First and Second Special Defenses in the answer of defendant Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park, LLC, arguing that they are barred under C.G.S. §52-572h(l), which provides: “[t]he legal doctrine . . . of . . . assumption of risk in actions to which this section is applicable [is] abolished.” Plaintiff asserts that the special defenses that are labeled “Waiver” and “Release” are, in actuality, based on assumption of risk because they purport to relieve defendant of liability for risks inherent in the activity, which by statute is not a valid defense in this negligence action. For the reasons stated below, the motion to strike the First and Second Special Defenses is denied.
Standards for Deciding a Motion to Strike Special Defenses
“‘A party wanting to contest the legal sufficiency of a special defense may do so by filing a motion to strike.’ Barasso v. Rear Still Hill Road, LLC, 64 Conn.App. 9, 13, 779 A.2d 198 (2001); Practice Book §10-39(a).2 ‘A motion to strike admits all facts well pleaded; it does not admit legal conclusions or the truth or accuracy of opinions stated in the pleadings.’ . . . Faulkner v. United Technologies Corp., 240 Conn. 576, 588, 693 A.2d 293 (1997). ‘In ruling on a motion to strike, the court must accept as true the facts alleged in the special defenses and [*2] construe them in the manner most favorable to sustaining their legal sufficiency.’ . . . Doe v. Hartford Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp., 317 Conn. 357, 398, 119 A.3d 462 (2015). ‘On the other hand, the total absence of any factual allegations specific to the dispute renders [a special defense] legally insufficient.’ . . . Smith v. Jackson, Superior Court, judicial district of Waterbury, Docket No. CV-14-6024411-S (August 21, 2015, Roraback, J.) (59 Conn. L. Rptr. 864, 2015 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2191). Finally, ‘the trial court is limited to considering the grounds specified in the motion [to strike].’ Meredith v. Police Commission, 182 Conn. 138, 140, 438 A.2d 27 (1980).” Pritsker v. Bowman, 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 190, 2017 WL 811609 *2 (Conn.Super. 2017) (Bellis, J.).
The Court May Not Review Material Outside the Pleading in Deciding a Motion to Strike
Plaintiff urged the court to consider the quoted excerpts from the contract alleged in the special defenses in the context of the entire contract, which plaintiff appended to her brief. In ruling on a motion to strike a court is required “to take the facts to be those alleged in the special defenses in the manner most favorable to sustaining their legal sufficiency.” Connecticut Nat. Bank v. Douglas, 221 Conn. 530, 536, 606 A.2d 684 (1992). The Court is not free to consider those portions of the contract that are not alleged nor attached as an exhibit to the answer. See generally Mercer v. Cosley, 110 Conn.App. 283, 292, 955 A.2d 550 (2008) (speaking motion to strike is improper).
The First Special Defense States the Defense of Waiver
In this action plaintiff claimed she was injured while using [*3] a rope swing at defendant’s park. Both sides referred the Court to Segal v. Brownstone Exploration and Discovery Park, LLC, 2014 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1183, 2014 WL 2696775 *2 (Conn.Super. 2014) (Roche, J.), a similar case brought against the same defendant in which Judge Roche struck a special defense based on assumption of risk: “‘[T]he doctrine [of assumption of risk] was a product of the industrial revolution, designed to insulate employers to the greatest possible extent by defeating the claims of their injured workers.’ Donahue v. S.J. Fish & Sons, Inc., Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford, Docket No. CV-539920-S (September 18, 1995, Blue, J.) (15 Conn. L. Rptr. 569, 570, 1995 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2618) [1995 WL 562216]. ‘Traditionally, the doctrine provided a defendant with a complete defense to a claim of negligence that centered on the conduct of the plaintiff . . . [T]he assumption of risk variants fall generally into two separate categories: (1) a negligence defense that the plaintiff’s conduct operated so as to relieve the defendant of a duty of care with regard to the plaintiff; and (2) a negligence defense that, while conceding that the defendant owed a duty of care and breached that duty, precludes recovery by the plaintiff because the plaintiff was aware of the defendant’s negligence and the risk thereby created, but nevertheless chose to confront such risk.’ . . . Blondin v. Meshack, Superior Court, [*4] judicial district of New Haven, Docket No. CV-08-5018828-S (October 2, 2008, Lager, J.) [46 Conn. L. Rptr. 396, 2008 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2512] [2008 WL 4635882]. However, “[t]he harsh doctrine . . . is plainly `morally unacceptable’ in modern times . . . The majority of states have altered or abolished it, either legislatively or by judicial decision . . . [T]he Connecticut legislature has statutorily abolished the doctrine in negligence cases.” Donahue v. S.J. Fish & Sons, Inc., supra, 15 Conn. L. Rptr. at 570, 1995 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2618. General Statutes §52-572h(l) states: “The legal doctrines of last clear chance and assumption of risk in actions to which this section is applicable are abolished.” In the present case, accordingly, the defendant’s second special defense is legally insufficient because the doctrine of assumption of the risk has been legislatively abolished with regard to negligence claims. The plaintiffs’ motion to strike the defendant’s second special defense is, therefore, granted.”
Defendant has not asserted a defense of assumption of risk, but rather alleged that plaintiff signed a document entitled “Assumption of Risk, Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims & Arbitration Agreement” in which “the plaintiff agreed to waive all claims against [defendant] . . . arising out of the inherent risks of participating in programs and events operated by [defendant] . . .”1 The First Special Defense alleged [*5] “[a]ny injuries sustained by the plaintiff while using the ‘Blob’ activity at [defendant] . . . arose out of the inherent risks of this activity.”
1 This is a classic contract of adhesion that is not bargained for but accepted by the consumer as a condition for his or her participation in the activity. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 328-29, 333, 885 A.2d 734 (2005).
“Waiver is the voluntary relinquishment or abandonment of a known right or privilege.” Brown v. City of Hartford, 160 Conn.App. 677, 698, 127 A.3d 278 (2015). See also Benedetto v. Proprietors of the Commons at Mill River, Inc., 2014 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2322, 2014 WL 5356665 *8 (Conn.Super. 2014) (Vitale, J.), contractual waiver as special defense).
Connecticut courts have recognized that pre-injury waiver as a defense to a claim based on inherent risks from an activity is not the same as a waiver of a claim of defendant’s own negligence. See e.g., Hanks, 276 Conn. at 326, 335; Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, Inc., 265 Conn. 636, 643-44, 829 A.2d 827 (2003). In Hyson, the Supreme Court distinguished between release of liability for risks inherent in an activity and exculpation of a party’s own negligence:
In keeping with the well-established principle, however, that `[t]he law does not favor contract provisions which relieve a person from his own negligence’ . . . we conclude that the better rule is that a party cannot be released from liability for injuries resulting from its future negligence in the absence of language that expressly so provides. The release signed in the present case illustrates the need for such a rule. A person of ordinary intelligence reasonably could believe that, by signing this release, he or she was releasing the defendant only [*6] from liability for damages caused by dangers inherent in the activity of snow tubing. A requirement of express language releasing the defendant from liability for its negligence prevents individuals from inadvertently relinquishing valuable legal rights.
In Jagger v. Mohawk Mountain Ski Area, Inc., 269 Conn. 672, 687-88, 849 A.2d 813 & nn. 17-22 (2004), the Supreme Court differentiated between pre-injury release from inherent risks of an activity, defined by reference to a dictionary definition of “inherent” as “structural or involved in the constitution or essential character of something,” from release of negligence that involves the exercise of some control over the activity and/or conditions by defendant. In Hanks, 276 Conn. at 741, the Supreme Court cited the definition of inherent risk in Jagger, 269 Conn. at 692: “inherent risks . . . are innate to the activity, [and] ‘are beyond the control of the [recreational] operator’s exercise of reasonable care.'”
In Segal, 2014 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1183, 2014 WL 2696775 *8, the same court that had struck the assumption of risk special defense, declined to strike the waiver special defense; the court assumed the allegation that plaintiff had waived risks inherent in the activity was true as alleged, and concluded that the provision was exculpatory because it expressly included defendant’s negligence. [*7]
The language of the waiver provision here is limited to “the inherent risks of this activity” and is not broad enough to exculpate defendant for its own negligence. A contractual waiver of liability for inherent risks from an activity is not conceptually the same thing as assumption of risk from participation in a risky activity. Defendant has failed to show that the waiver special defense is the same as the assumption of risk defense abolished by C.G.S. §52-572h(l). Stated otherwise, defendant has failed to show the statutory prohibition extended to waiver by contract. The motion to strike the First Special Defense is denied.
The Second Special Defense States the Defense of Release
The Segal Court also refused to strike the release defense for the same reasons it did not strike the waiver special defense. 2014 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1183, 2014 WL 2696775 *8. The release special defense here also alleges the contractual release “arising out of the inherent risks of participation in the Programs . . .”2 A contractual release of liability for inherent risks from an activity is not conceptually the same thing as assumption of risk from participation in a risky activity. Defendant has failed to show that the release special defense is the same as the assumption [*8] of risk defense abolished by C.G.S. §52-572h(l). Stated otherwise, defendant has failed to show the statutory prohibition extended to releases by contract. The motion to strike the Second Special Defense is denied.
2 This may be an exculpatory provision since it includes “the instruction received while participating in the Programs,” which is subject to control of the operator. Plaintiff has not moved to strike on this ground.
Renee Kopesky v. Connecticut American Water Company
SUPERIOR COURT OF CONNECTICUT, JUDICIAL DISTRICT OF STAMFORD – NORWALK, AT STAMFORD
1999 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2166
August 2, 1999, Decided
August 2, 1999, Filed
NOTICE: [*1] 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.
DISPOSITION: Defendant’s motion to strike second count of plaintiff’s amended complaint, and that portion of the prayer for relief claiming punitive damages, denied.
PROCEDURAL POSTURE: Defendant brought a motion to strike the second count of plaintiff’s amended complaint and that portion of the prayer for relief claiming punitive damages in an action alleging that decedent sustained fatal injuries on defendant’s property because of defendant’s negligence and reckless conduct.
OVERVIEW: Decedent died when she fell from a swing on defendant’s property. Plaintiff brought an action against defendant, alleging that defendant was aware that the public entered their property to go swimming. The second count of plaintiff’s complaint alleged that defendant’s acts or omissions were done recklessly, wantonly, carelessly, and with a reckless disregard for the consequences of its acts or omissions. Defendant brought a motion to strike count two of plaintiff’s complaint and that portion of the prayer for relief claiming punitive damages. The court ruled that a motion to strike could be used to contest the legal sufficiency of any prayer for relief. Further, the court held that an action sounding in reckless conduct required an allegation of an intentional act that resulted in injury. Also, the court found that in order to rise to the level of recklessness, the action producing the injury must be intentional and characterized by highly unreasonable conduct which amounted to an extreme departure from ordinary care. The court, viewing the allegations in the light most favorable to plaintiff, denied the motion, concluding that the allegations did rise to the level of recklessness.
OUTCOME: Motion to strike the second count of plaintiff’s complaint and that portion of the prayer for relief claiming punitive damages was denied where, viewing the complaint in the light most favorably to plaintiff, plaintiff alleged facts sufficient to state causes of action sounding in negligence and recklessness.
CORE TERMS: recklessness, quotation marks omitted, reckless, sounding, reckless disregard, judicial district, favorably, prayer, decedent, common law, reckless conduct, legal sufficiency, cause of action, contest, viewing, fatal injuries, punitive damages, carelessness, recklessly, omissions, wantonly, swing
JUDGES: D’ANDREA, J.
OPINION BY: D’ANDREA
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE: MOTION TO STRIKE
The plaintiff, Renee Kopesky, the administratrix for the estate of Tiffany Jean Kopesky, brought this action against the defendant, Connecticut American Water Company, for damages sustained by the plaintiff’s decedent. The plaintiff alleges that the plaintiff’s decedent sustained fatal injuries on the defendant’s property, when she fell from a rope swing as she attempted to swing out into the water. The plaintiff alleges that the defendant was aware that the public entered their private property to go swimming, hiking, camping and fishing. In the first count of the amended complaint, the plaintiff alleges that the plaintiff’s decedent suffered severe painful and fatal injuries as a result of the defendant’s negligence and carelessness. In the second count, the plaintiff alleges that [*2] the defendant’s “acts and/or omissions . . . were done recklessly, wantonly, carelessly and with a reckless disregard for the consequences of its acts and/or omissions.”
The defendant moves to strike count two of the plaintiff’s amended complaint and that portion of the prayer for relief claiming punitive damages. The defendant argues that “count two is legally insufficient because a claim for recklessness cannot be established by relying upon the same set of facts used to establish negligence. The second count of plaintiff’s amended complaint simply restates the facts underlying the plaintiff’s claim for negligence. Reiterating the same underlying facts of a negligence claim and renaming the claim as one for recklessness does not transform ordinary negligence into recklessness.”
” [HN1] The purpose of a motion to strike is to contest . . . the legal sufficiency of the allegations of the complaint . . . to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Peter-Michael, Inc. v. Sea Shell Associates, 244 Conn. 269, 270, 709 A.2d 558 (1998). ” [HN2] For purposes of a motion to strike, the moving party admits all facts well pleaded.” RK Constructors, Inc. v. Fusco Corp., 231 Conn. 381, 383 n.2, 650 A.2d 153 (1994); [*3] see also Ferryman v. Groton, 212 Conn. 138, 142, 561 A.2d 432 (1989). “The court must construe the facts in the complaint most favorably to the plaintiff.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Faulkner v. United Technologies Corp., 240 Conn. 576, 580, 693 A.2d 293 (1997).
The motion to strike may also be used to contest the legal sufficiency of any prayer for relief. See Kavarco v. T.J.E., Inc., 2 Conn. App. 294, 298 n.4, 478 A.2d 257 (1984); Central New Haven Development Corp. v. Potpourri, Inc., 39 Conn. Supp. 132, 133, 471 A.2d 681 (1993); Practice Book 10-39(a)(2).
” [HN3] Recklessness is a state of consciousness with reference to the consequences of one’s acts. . . . It is more than negligence, more than gross negligence . . . The state of mind amounting to recklessness may be inferred from conduct. But, in order to infer it, there must be something more than a failure to exercise a reasonable degree of watchfulness to avoid a danger to others or to take reasonable precautions to avoid injury to them . . .” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Dubay v. Irish, 207 Conn. 518, 532, 542 A.2d 711 (1988). [*4]
This court has previously held that “the allegations of one count of a complaint based on a common law reckless conduct must be separate and distinct from the allegations of a second count sounding in negligence . . . There is a wide difference between negligence and reckless disregard of the rights or safety of others . . . A specific allegation setting out the conduct that is claimed to be reckless or wanton must be made . . . In other words, it is clearly necessary to plead a [common law] cause of action grounded in recklessness separate and distinct from a negligence action.” (Alterations in original; internal quotation marks omitted.) Thompson v. Buckler, 1999 Conn. Super. LEXIS 199, Superior Court, judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk at Stamford, Docket No. 153798 (Jan. 27, 1999) ( D’Andrea, J.), Epner v. Theratx, Inc., 1998 Conn. Super. LEXIS 603, Superior Court, judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk at Stamford, Docket No. 161989 (Mar. 10, 1998) (D’Andrea, J.). “In short, [HN4] an action sounding in reckless conduct requires an allegation of an intentional act that results in injury.” Id.
” [HN5] In order to rise to the level of recklessness, [the] action producing the injury must be intentional and characterized [*5] by highly unreasonable conduct which amounts to an extreme departure from ordinary care . . .” (Alterations in original; internal quotation marks omitted.) Epner v. Theratx, Inc., supra, 1998 Conn. Super. LEXIS 603, Superior Court, Docket No. 161989, citing Dubay v. Irish, 207 Conn. 518, 532, 542 A.2d 711 (1988). In the present case, viewing the allegations in the light most favorably to the plaintiff, the allegations do rise to the level of recklessness.
“If the alleged facts constitute recklessness . . . using the same facts in the negligence count does not prevent them from also being reckless. The test is whether the alleged facts amount to recklessness.” Walters v. Turrisi, 1997 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1011, Superior Court, judicial district of New London at New London, Docket No. 541162 (Apr. 15, 1997) ( Hurley, J.). “The mere fact that the allegations and factual assertions in a reckless count are the same or similar to one in a negligence count shouldn’t ipso facto mean the reckless count cannot be brought. The test is whether the facts alleged establish a reckless count. If they do all it would mean is that the plaintiff is pleading in the alternative.” Cancisco v. Hartford, 1995 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1885, Superior Court, judicial [*6] district of Hartford-New Britain at Hartford, Docket No. 519929 (June 26, 1995) (Corradino, J.).
In this case, viewing the complaint in the light most favorably to the plaintiff, the plaintiff has alleged facts sufficient to state causes of action sounding in negligence and recklessness. The first count of the plaintiff’s amended complaint contains twenty-five paragraphs of allegations relating to the defendant’s conduct regarding the incident in question. In the first count, the plaintiff alleges that that conduct amounts to the defendant’s negligence and/or carelessness.
In the second count, the plaintiff realleges and incorporates those twenty-five paragraphs from the first count and then alleges, in paragraph twenty-six, that the aforementioned conduct indicates that the defendant acted recklessly, wantonly and with a reckless disregard for the consequences. The allegations in the second count do rise to the level of recklessness. Accordingly, the plaintiff has pled an alternative cause of action sounding in recklessness, separate and distinct from the negligence count. Therefore, the defendant’s motion to strike the second count of the plaintiff’s amended complaint, [*7] and that portion of the prayer for relief claiming punitive damages, is hereby denied.
Staten Et. Al. v. The City of New York Et. Al., 2013 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4257; 2013 NY Slip Op 32252(U)Posted: April 17, 2018
[**1] Marvin Staten, an Infant Over the Age of 14 years by his Parent and Natural Guardian Cassandra Dozier and Cassandra Dozier, Individually, Plaintiffs, -against- The City of New York, The New York City Department of Education, Camp Chen-A-Wanda, Inc., Louis Cintron, Sr., Louis Cintron, Jr., an infant over the age of 14 years by his Parent and Natural Guardian, Louis Cintron, Sr., Barbara Rose Cintron and Louis Cintron, Jr. an infant over the age of 14 years by his Parent and Natural guardian, Barbara Rose Cintron, Defendants.
Index No. 104585/07
SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, RICHMOND COUNTY
2013 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4257; 2013 NY Slip Op 32252(U)
August 18, 2013, Decided
NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Affirmed in part and reversed in part by, Summary judgment granted by, Dismissed by, in part Staten v. City of New York, 2015 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 3334 (N.Y. App. Div. 2d Dep’t, Apr. 22, 2015)
PRIOR HISTORY: Staten v. City of New York, 90 A.D.3d 893, 935 N.Y.S.2d 80, 2011 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 9134 (N.Y. App. Div. 2d Dep’t, 2011)
CORE TERMS: window, glass, summary judgment, inter alia, bunk, high school, supervision, severed, horseplay, cabin, spontaneous, hazardous, engaging, breached, sudden, coach, adult, individual capacity, safety glass, building code, constructive notice, supervising, speculative, fighting, infant, fellow, leader, notice, cross claims, negligent supervision
JUDGES: [*1] Present: HON. THOMAS P. ALIOTTA
OPINION BY: THOMAS P. ALIOTTA
DECISION AND ORDER
[**2] Upon the foregoing papers, the motion for summary judgment (No. 1415-005) of defendant Camp Chen-A-Wanda, Inc. (hereinafter the “Camp”) is granted; the cross motion for summary judgment (No. 1471-006) of defendants The City of New York and The New York City Department of Education (hereinafter “City”) is granted to the extent of dismissing the claims of the individual plaintiff, Cassandra Dozier. The balance of the cross motion is denied.
This matter arises out of an incident which occurred on August 25, 2007 at the Camp’s premises in Pennsylvania, where the infant plaintiff, Marvin Staten (hereinafter “plaintiff”) was enrolled in a week-long football camp with the balance of his high school football team. Plaintiff, who was entering his sophomore year at Tottenville High School on Staten Island, claims to have sustained extensive injuries to his left eye when he was struck by glass from a window pane which had allegedly been broken by a punch thrown by defendant and fellow teammate, Louis Cintron, Jr. (hereinafter “Cintron”). It appears undisputed that the window broke while plaintiff and/or Cintron were engaging in [*2] “horseplay.”
At his deposition, plaintiff testified that shortly after dinner on the date of the accident, he was standing outside his cabin, looking in through a window at eye-level to “see if anybody was messing around with [his] stuff” when, after a few seconds, defendant Cintron “punched [through] the glass” (see Plaintiff’s March 27, 2009 EBT, pp 70-71; Camp’s Exhibit F). No criminal charges were filed against plaintiff’s teammate, who was, however, dismissed from the camp, “cut” from his high school team, and suspended from Tottenville High School following the incident.
The claims against the Camp and the City are grounded in allegations of negligent supervision and maintenance of the premises where the incident occurred (see Plaintiffs’ Amended Verified Complaint, Camp’s Exhibit A, para “Thirty-Sixth”).
[**3] It is noted that prior to this incident, i.e., on February 14, 2006, Cintron had been disciplined by Tottenville High School for engaging in disruptive conduct with another student (see City’s Exhibit I; see also Staten v. City of New York, 90 AD3d 893, 935 N.Y.S.2d 80). It is likewise noted that pursuant to a written contract drawn on Camp Chen-A-Wanda letterhead, dated and signed August 20, [*3] 2007, Tottenville High School coach Jim Munson agreed that “each bunk will be supervised by a coach, former player, or other adult who is at least nineteen years of age” (see City’s Exhibit C). To the extent relevant, the bunk “leaders” supervising plaintiff’s bunk were two seniors, one of whom was defendant Cintron.
In moving for summary judgment, Camp argues, inter alia, that: (1) it owed no duty to supervise plaintiff or to otherwise protect him from horseplay; (2) no facts have been adduced in support of plaintiffs’ claim that the subject window constituted a “defective condition”; and (3) since the proximate cause of the accident was the sudden, unanticipated independent actions of Cintron (i.e., punching the glass), the Camp cannot be found liable for plaintiff’s injury.
In opposition to the motion, plaintiff alleges, inter alia, that not only was the Camp negligent in its maintenance of the premises, but that it was negligent: (1) per se in using ordinary or “annealed” glass for the cabin windows rather than safety glass, in violation of Pennsylvania State and International Building Codes (see June 12, 2013 affidavit of Plaintiff’s Expert, Michael J. Peterson, Plaintiff’s Exhibit [*4] H); (2) in failing to properly exercise risk management, and (3) in failing to supervise its post-season campers and protect them against horseplay. Plaintiff further argues that while Cintron’s actions might be considered “intervening,” his conduct was not a superseding cause of the accident. Notably, plaintiff submits the affidavit of Michael J. Peterson (see Plaintiffs’ Exhibit H), an “expert with 44 years in the camping industry and a co-author of the American Camp Association’s ‘2006 Camp Accreditation Process Guide'” (see Plaintiffs’ [**4] Memorandum of Law), who opined, inter alia, “with a reasonable degree of professional certainty of the camping industry…that [the Camp] should have begun and completed replacement of all non-reinforced glass in hazardous or even marginally hazardous locations within [its] camp with safety impact rated glass, plexi glass (plastic),…safety film, or…reinforced…small gauge hardware cloth wire a full two decades before this accident.” The expert further opined that had these steps been taken, the punch “would not [have] shattered safety impact rated glass, plexi-glass, glass covered with safety film or reinforced glass” (id.).
As previously indicated, [*5] the Camp’s motion for summary judgment is granted, and the complaint and any cross claims as against this defendant are hereby severed and dismissed.
In the opinion of this Court, it is constrained by the 2005 decision of the Court of Appeals in Buchholz v. Trump 767 Fifth Avenue, (5 NY3d 1, 831 N.E.2d 960, 798 N.Y.S.2d 715) to hold that the “conclusory testimony” offered by plaintiff’s expert was “insufficient to raise a question of fact as to whether [the Camp] breached its duty to maintain [its] property in a reasonably safe condition in view of all the circumstances, including the likelihood of injury to others, the seriousness of the injury, and the burden of avoiding the risk” and, further, that the failure of plaintiff’s expert to quote any “authority, treatise [or] standard” in support thereof rendered his ultimate opinion speculative and/or “unsupported by any evidentiary foundation…[sufficient] to withstand summary judgment (id. at 9 [internal quotation marks omitted]; see Diaz v. New York Downtown Hosp., 99 NY2d 542, 544, 784 N.E.2d 68, 754 N.Y.S.2d 195).1
1 The decedent in Buchholz was pushed and fell through an office window after engaging in “play fighting” with three co-workers following their attendance at a St. Patrick’s Day Parade [*6] in 1999 (id. at 4). Plaintiff alleged that the premises’ owner was negligent, inter alia, in failing to furnish shatterproof glass windows and a safety rail across the window’s face in contravention of certain sections of the New York City Administrative Code, particularly §27-651 (“Panels subject to human impact loads”). Plaintiff’s expert, a registered architect and licensed engineer, submitted an affidavit opining that the window’s very low sill was problematic, and further, that “good and accepted engineering and building safety practices dictated that a protective barrier bar be installed” (id. at 6). Nevertheless, the trial court’s denial of the owner’s summary judgment motion was reversed on appeal (see Buchholz v. Trump 767 Fifth Ave., LLC, 4 AD3d 178, 772 N.Y.S.2d 257) and affirmed by the Court of Appeals based, inter alia, on the speculative nature of the opinion of plaintiff’s expert.
[**5] Here, plaintiff’s expert placed substantial reliance on the language of the 2006 American Camp Association Accreditation Process Guide in formulating his opinion. However, although alleged to have been tested “numerous times in litigation”, Mr. Peterson failed to demonstrate, e.g., where or when this guide has [*7] been accepted as an authoritative reference work in any court of law, or its applicability to a camp constructed in the 1940s. Moreover, his opinion that the failure to replace unannealed windows violated certain Pennsylvania codes or statutes is not compelling or binding upon this Court. To the contrary, Peterson’s reliance on 34 Pa. Admin. Code §47.398, to require the use of “safety glass” in bunk windows represents a misreading of the statute, as the provision in question was not adopted until 1972 (some thirty years after the Camp began its operations), and neither it nor any other Pennsylvania building code or regulation has been cited requiring that bunk windows be retrofitted to conform to the 1972 requirements (cf. Buchholz v. Trump 767 Fifth Avenue, 5 NY3d at 9). Moreover, he failed to show that the window in question was actually in a “hazardous” location for purposes of the cited codes, i.e., within 24 inches of the bunkhouse door. In fact, no measurement was provided. “Although noncompliance with…a customary practice or industry standard may be evidence of negligence, the failure to abide by guidelines or recommendations that are not generally-accepted standards in an [*8] industry will not suffice to raise an issue of fact as to a defendant’s negligence” (Diaz v. New York Downtown Hosp., 287 AD2d 357, 358, 731 N.Y.S.2d 694, affd 99 NY2d 542, 784 N.E.2d 68, 754 N.Y.S.2d 195 [citations omitted]; see also Ambrosio v. South Huntington Union Free School Dist., 249 AD2d 346, 671 N.Y.S.2d 110). This, similarly to Buchholz, is just such a case2.
2 Also worthy of note is the Camp’s uncontroverted representation that no similar incidents (other than, e.g., windows broken by vandalism) occurred during its sixty-year history (see February 3, 2010 EBT of Craig Neier, Camp’s Exhibit C).
The City’s cross motion for summary judgment is granted in part, and denied, in part, as hereinafter provided.
[**6] In arguing for dismissal of the negligent supervision claim, the City argues that (1) it provided more than enough chaperones at the training camp, (2) issued oral and written instructions against the type of conduct which caused plaintiff’s injury; (3) the sudden, spontaneous and unforeseeable nature of defendant Cintron’s actions were such that no reasonable amount of supervision could have prevented the injury, and (4) it had no prior notice of the latter’s propensity to engage in the type of conduct that caused plaintiff’s injury. Moreover, [*9] the City maintains that it did not legally own, occupy, or control the Camp; that Cintron’s independent and spontaneous actions breached any chain of causation connected to the condition or maintenance of the camp and/or its cabin windows; and that it possessed no actual or constructive notice of any dangerous condition regarding the composition of the window itself.
In opposition, plaintiffs argue, inter alia, that the lack of supervision which encouraged the horseplay causing the injury is evident by the City’s failure to (1) place an adult in each cabin, as required under plaintiff’s interpretation of the terms of its contract with the Camp (see City’s Exhibit C); (2) adhere to the Regulations of the Chancellor governing adult supervision on school trips (see City’s Exhibit D), and (3) comply with American Camp Association standard HR-10A and 10B regarding the supervision of campers (see June 12, 2013 affidavit of plaintiffs’ expert, Michael J. Peterson, “Opinions 1”).
Here, the duty of supervising the student/athletes was contractually assumed by the City. In determining whether the duty to provide adequate supervision has been breached in the context of injuries caused by the acts [*10] of fellow students, it must be established that school authorities had sufficiently specific knowledge or notice of the dangerous conduct which caused the injury. Put simply, the third-party acts must reasonably have been anticipated (see Brandy B. v. Eden Cent. School Dist., 15 NY3d 297, 302, 934 N.E.2d 304, 907 N.Y.S.2d 735; Mirand v. City of New York, 84 NY2d 44, 49, 637 N.E.2d 263, 614 N.Y.S.2d 372; [**7] Shannea M. v. City of New York, 66 AD3d 667, 886 N.Y.S.2d 483; Doe v. Department of Educ. of City of NY, 54 AD3d 352, 862 N.Y.S.2d 598). In this regard, actual or constructive notice to the school of prior similar conduct is generally required, since school personnel cannot be reasonably expected to guard against all of the sudden and spontaneous acts that take place among students on a daily basis.
Here, the proof of Cintron’s 2006 suspension for fighting at school serves to preclude the City from demonstrating prima facie that his designation as bunk “leader” was reasonable as a matter of law (see Staten v. City of New York and Camp Chen-A-Wanda, Inc., 90 AD3d 893, 935 N.Y.S.2d 80; see also September 16, 2009 EBT of James Munson, pp 16, 33, 39-42; the Camp’s Exhibit E). Neither is Coach Munson’s investigation purportedly uncovering a conflicting version of the events in which the breaking of the glass [*11] is attributed to plaintiff “put[ting] his face” against it (see EBT of James Munson, p 54) sufficient to warrant dismissal of the cause of action pleaded on behalf of the infant plaintiff.
However, it is well settled that a parent cannot recover for the loss of society and companionship of a child who was negligently injured (see White v. City of New York, 37 AD2d 603, 322 N.Y.S.2d 920), while a claim for the loss of a child’s services must be capable of monetarization in order to be compensable (see DeVito v. Opatich, 215 AD2d 714, 627 N.Y.S.2d 441). Here, plaintiff’s mother has offered no proof of the value of any services rendered to her by her son. As a result, so much of the complaint as seeks an award of damages in her individual capacity for the loss of her son’s services must be severed and dismissed.
Accordingly, it is
ORDERED, that the motion for summary judgment of defendant Camp Chen-A-Wanda Inc. is granted, and the complaint and any cross claims as against this defendant are hereby severed and dismissed; and it is further
[**8] ORDERED, that the cross motion for summary judgment of defendants The City of New York and The New York City Department of Education is granted to the extent that the cause(s) of action asserted [*12] by plaintiff Cassandra Dozier in her individual capacity are hereby severed and dismissed, and it is further
ORDERED that the remainder of the cross motion for summary judgment is denied.
Hon. Thomas P. Aliotta
Dated: September 18, 2013
Louisa R. Ellis, ppa Elizabeth Ellis, Elizabeth Ellis, Plaintiff-Appellant, -v.- YMCA Camp Mohawk, Inc., Defendant-Appellee.
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT
615 Fed. Appx. 697; 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 16057
September 10, 2015, Decided
NOTICE: PLEASE REFER TO FEDERAL RULES OF APPELLATE PROCEDURE RULE 32.1 GOVERNING THE CITATION TO UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS.
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Thompson, J.).
Ellis v. Y.M.C.A. Camp Mohawk, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 110403 (D. Conn., Aug. 11, 2014)
OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: -A claim that a summer camp operator was negligent in offering horseback riding instruction required the support of expert testimony, as the intricacies of horseback riding technique and horsemanship were no longer within the bounds of ordinary knowledge or experience of judges and jurors; -The proffered expert witness was not qualified under Fed. R. Evid. 702, as he claimed a generalized familiarity with camp education but had practically no knowledge or experience relating to horsemanship.
OUTCOME: Judgment affirmed.
CORE TERMS: expert testimony, summary judgment, state law, standard of care, specialized knowledge, horsemanship, expertise, juror, horseback riding, expert witness, issues of material fact, qualification, familiarity, membership, diversity, resume, equestrian, pony
COUNSEL: FOR APPELLANT: Megan L. Piltz, Sabatini and Associates, LLC, Newington, Connecticut.
FOR APPELLEES: Renee W. Dwyer and Katherine L. Matthews, Gordon, Muir and Foley, LLP, Hartford, Connecticut.
JUDGES: PRESENT: RALPH K. WINTER, JOHN M. WALKER, JR., DENNIS JACOBS, Circuit Judges.
[*697] SUMMARY ORDER
UPON DUE CONSIDERATION, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that the judgment of the district court be AFFIRMED.
Louisa Ellis and Elizabeth Ellis (“Appellants”) appeal from the judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Thompson, J.), dismissing [*698] on summary judgment their diversity action alleging negligence against YCMA Camp Mohawk, Inc. (“YMCA”). Appellants argue that the district court abused its discretion in determining that their expert, Corey Andres, was not qualified to render an expert opinion regarding the standard of care for an equestrian course at the YMCA camp at which twelve-year-old Louisa was injured. Appellants also argue that the district court erred in determining that all of the issues presented require expert testimony. We assume the parties’ [**2] familiarity with the underlying facts, the procedural history, and the issues presented for review.
On July 18, 2011, Louisa Ellis fell from a pony while taking horseback riding lessons at YMCA Camp Mohawk. Ellis sustained injuries to her hand and elbow that required surgery and therapy. Appellants identified Andres, an employee of Robson Forensic, to investigate the claims and to provide expert testimony. Andres claimed his expertise based on his membership in the American Camp Association (“ACA”) and his study of therapeutic education at Ohio State, University of Toledo, including a study pertaining to equestrian matters. Andres’s investigation concluded that YMCA was negligent in failing to provide complete and proper instruction as to how to fall from a horse in a way that minimizes injury.
The district court excluded Andres’s expert testimony on the ground that he had limited experience in the field of horseback riding. Therefore, appellants’ failure to produce an expert where expert testimony was required led the district court to grant summary judgment.
[HN1] A grant of summary judgment is reviewed de novo to determine whether any genuine issues of material fact would bar summary judgment. [**3] Zurich Am. Ins. Co. v. ABM Indus., Inc., 397 F.3d 158, 164 (2d Cir. 2005). [HN2] We review the district court’s evidentiary ruling under an abuse-of-discretion standard. See id. at 171-72. “Either an error of law or a clear error of fact may constitute an abuse of discretion.” Schering Corp. v. Pfizer, Inc., 189 F.3d 218, 224 (2d Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). [HN3] A district court’s qualification of an expert witness will only be overturned if it is manifestly erroneous. United States v. Barrow, 400 F.3d 109, 123 (2d Cir. 2005).
[HN4] In a diversity action, whether expert testimony is required is a matter of state law, whereas the admissibility of a given expert witness is governed by the Federal Rules of Evidence. See 29 Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 6263; see also Beaudette v. Louisville Ladder Inc., 462 F.3d 22, 27 (1st Cir. 2006). [HN5] Under Connecticut state law, expert testimony is required when a matter goes “beyond the ordinary knowledge and experience of judges or jurors.” LePage v. Horne, 262 Conn. 116, 809 A.2d 505, 511 (Conn. 2002). Connecticut courts have held, on similar facts, that the general public is no longer as familiar with horsemanship as it arguably was at the beginning of the twentieth century, and that expert testimony is necessary to establish a standard of care and a breach of that standard. Keeney v. Mystic Valley Hunt Club, Inc., 93 Conn. App. 368, 889 A.2d 829, 833-34 (Conn. App. Ct. 2006).
As the district court held, Appellants’ claims required the support of expert testimony. The intricacies of horseback riding technique and horsemanship [**4] are no longer within the bounds of ordinary knowledge or experience of judges and jurors. Questions [*699] such as whether the stirrups were improperly installed and whether the pony was of sufficient size to carry the rider are not questions that the average juror can decide based on past knowledge or experience. We therefore agree that Ellis needed expert testimony to show both a standard of care and a breach of that standard.
Andres claimed a generalized familiarity with camp education. However, [HN6] Federal Rule of Evidence 702 requires expertise based on specialized knowledge and experience, not a mere understanding derived from others’ publications. “A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion if the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” Fed. R. Evid. 702(a); see also Marvel Characters, Inc. v. Kirby, 726 F.3d 119, 135 (2d Cir. 2013). Andres does not rise to the level of expertise required to opine on the matters at hand. Andres has practically no knowledge or experience relating to horsemanship — his resume makes no reference to any such knowledge, and his investigation merely points to three publications [**5] that he relied on when preparing his report. Andres’s resume instead highlights a wide array of fields and organizations in which he has obtained certifications or is a member. Appellants argue that Andres’s membership in the ACA broadly reaches all camp recreations. This broad qualification falls well short of the specialized knowledge that Federal Rule of Evidence 702 demands. The district court therefore did not abuse its discretion in its decision to exclude Andres’s testimony.
Appellants’ failure to provide necessary expert testimony precludes them from presenting these claims under Connecticut state law. See LePage, 809 A.2d at 511. Thus, there are no issues of material fact raised to challenge the district court’s entry of summary judgment.
For the foregoing reasons, and finding no merit in Appellant’s other arguments, we hereby AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.
Quan Vu and May Siew, Plaintiffs, v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., Defendants,
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013
March 26, 2018, Decided
CORE TERMS: skiing, trail, edge, downhill, ski, skier, snowboarder, sport, inherent risk, slope, collision, rocks, summary judgment, drop-off, att, daughter, skied, snow, pile, foot, lift ticket, knee-jerk, genuine, resort, Skier’s Responsibility Act, matter of law, specific risk, experienced, elevation, veering
COUNSEL: [*1] For Quan VU, May Siew, Plaintiffs: D. Aaron Rihn, Mark D. Troyan, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Robert Peirce & Associates, P.C., Pittsburgh, PA USA.
For Ski Liberty Operating Corp. doing business as Liberty Mountain Resort, Defendant: Anthony W. Hinkle, Snow Time, Inc., Cipriani & Werner, P.C., Philadelphia, PA, USA.
For Snow Time, Inc., Ski Liberty Operating Corp., Counterclaim Plaintiffs: Anthony W. Hinkle, Cipriani & Werner, P.C., Philadelphia, PA USA.
For Snow Time, Inc., Ski Liberty Operating Corp., Counterclaim Defendants: Anthony W. Hinkle, Cipriani & Werner, P.C., Philadelphia, PA USA.
JUDGES: Hon. John E. Jones III, United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: John E. Jones III
Plaintiffs are Quan Vu and his wife, May Siew. (“Plaintiffs”). Defendants are Ski Liberty Operating Corp. and Snow Time, Inc., operating as Liberty Mountain Resort. (“Defendants”). This action arises out of a skiing accident at Liberty Mountain that left Mr. Vu severely injured. The complaint brings one count of negligence on behalf of Mr. Vu and one count of loss of consortium on behalf of Mrs. Siew, both alleging that the accident was caused by the Defendants’ negligence in maintaining the ski slope and failing to warn Mr. Vu of [*2] the slope’s hazardous condition. (Doc. 1). Presently pending before the Court is the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. (the “Motion”) (Doc. 36). The Motion has been fully briefed and is therefore ripe for our review. (Docs. 38, 42, 43). For the reasons that follow, the Motion shall be granted.
On January 23, 2015, Mr. Vu was downhill skiing with his daughter at Liberty Mountain. (Doc. 41, ¶ 24). Mr. Vu was following his daughter from behind as they skied down the Lover Heavenly trail, a blue square intermediate hill, when he had his accident. (Id. at ¶¶ 24-25). Due to his injuries, Mr. Vu does not recall much detail about his accident. (Doc. 37, ¶ 11). Mr. Vu testified: “I believe there was a snowboarder involved and I — the snowboarder got — either cut me off or got awfully close and I had a knee-jerk reaction to veer because the last thing I want to do is ram into somebody. So I — my knee-jerk reaction is to veer.” (Doc. 37, att. 1, pp. 65-66). However, Mr. Vu could not recall what he saw that caused him to veer, whether he veered to the right or to the left, or whether the snowboarder was above or below him on the hill. (Id. at pp. 65-66). The last thing that Mr. Vu remembered [*3] was skiing with his daughter. (Id. at p. 66).
Mr. Vu’s daughter testified: “I saw someone get really close to him and he was trying to avoid them and it was either ramming into him, the snowboarder, or person who was trying to get really close to him, or veering off path.” (Doc. 42, att. 2, p. 8). “He — there was someone trying to kind of get really close to him. And he didn’t want to ram into him. So he — I don’t really understand — know what happened. But he tried to avoid it. And there was like a big ditch or something there. And he tried to stop and tried to avoid the person who was trying to cut him off.” (Id.). “My dad was — the snowboarder was — my dad was kind of like the ham in the middle of a sandwich. Between the end of the trail, the edge of the trail and the snowboarder.” (Id. at p. 9). “I just felt that the snowboarder was getting quite close to my dad and I didn’t want a collision to happen or the snowboarder to ram into my dad.” (Id. at p. 10).
Ultimately, whether he did so intentionally or not, Mr. Vu skied off of the edge of the trail and suffered catastrophic injuries. There was a drop-off at the edge of the ski trail of about three to four feet. (Doc. 41, ¶ 32). Below that drop-off was a large pile [*4] of rocks. (Id. at ¶ 31). Mr. Vu skied off of the edge of the trail, off of the embankment, and landed on the pile of rocks. (Doc. 37, ¶ 11).
Mr. Vu was an experienced skier at the time of his accident. He had skied for over twenty years and was capable of skiing black diamond slopes. (Id. at P 6). Mr. Vu testified that he was familiar with the Skier’s Responsibility Code and understood that he was responsible for skiing in control and in such a manner that he could stop or avoid other skiers. (Id.). Mr. Vu also testified that he understood that skiing is a dangerous sport and that he could get hurt if he skied out of control or if he fell. (Id.).
On the day of his accident, Mr. Vu’s wife purchased his Liberty Mountain Resort Lift Ticket. (Id. at ¶ 18). The back of the lift ticket reads as follows:
Acceptance of this ticket constitutes a contract. The conditions of the contract are stated on this ticket & will prevent or restrict your ability to sue Liberty Mountain Resort. If you do not agree with these conditions, then do not use the facility. Snowsports in their various forms, including the use of lifts, are dangerous sports with inherent and other risks. These risks include but are [*5] not limited to: variations in snow, steepness & terrain, ice & icy conditions, moguls, rocks, trees & other forms of forest growth or debris (above or below the surface), bare spots, lift towers, utility lines & poles, fencing or lack of fencing, snowmaking & snowgrooming equipment & component parts, on-snow vehicles & other forms of natural or man-made obstacles, and terrain features on or off designated trails as well as collisions with equipment, obstacles or other snowsport participants. Trail conditions vary constantly because of weather changes and use. All the inherent and other risks involved present the risk of permanent catastrophic injury or death. In consideration of using Liberty’s facilities, the purchaser or user of this ticket agrees to accept the risks of snowsports and understands and agrees that they are hazardous and further agrees NOT TO SUE Ski Liberty Operating Corp., its owners or employees if injured while using the facilities regardless of any negligence, including gross negligence, on the part of the resort, and/or its employees or agents. The purchaser or user of this ticket voluntarily assumes the risk of injury while participating in the sport, and agrees [*6] to report all injuries before leaving the resort . . .
(Doc. 37, Ex. D) (emphasis in original). Though Mr. Vu was uncertain if he read the language on the lift ticket on the day of his accident, he testified that he had read it at some point prior to his accident. (Doc. 37, ¶ 20). At his deposition, Mr. Vu was asked to read portions of the lift ticket and he had trouble doing so because the font was too small. (Doc. 37, att. 1, p. 70).
Mr. Vu and his wife initiated this action with the filing of a complaint on October 27, 2016. (Doc. 1). Plaintiffs allege that Defendants were negligent in the design, construction, and maintenance of the ski slope, failure to warn Mr. Vu of the dangerous condition, failure to construct a barrier to stop skiers from going over the edge into the pile of rocks, failure to inspect the scope and detect the defective condition, and failure to repair that condition. Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment on January 31, 2018. (Doc. 36).
I II. LEGAL STANDARD
Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party establishes “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A dispute [*7] is “genuine” only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party, and a fact is “material” only if it might affect the outcome of the action under the governing law. See Sovereign Bank v. BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc., 533 F.3d 162, 172 (3d Cir. 2008) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A court should view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, drawing all reasonable inferences therefrom, and should not evaluate credibility or weigh the evidence. See Guidotti v. Legal Helpers Debt Resolution, L.L.C., 716 F.3d 764, 772 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000)).
Initially, the moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact, and upon satisfaction of that burden, the non-movant must go beyond the pleadings, pointing to particular facts that evidence a genuine dispute for trial. See id. at 773 (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986)). In advancing their positions, the parties must support their factual assertions by citing to specific parts of the record or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” FED. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1).
A court should not grant summary judgment when there is a disagreement about the facts or the proper inferences that a factfinder could draw from them. See Reedy v. Evanson, 615 F.3d 197, 210 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Peterson v. Lehigh Valley Dist. Council, 676 F.2d 81, 84 (3d Cir. 1982)). Still, “the [*8] mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment.” Layshock ex rel. Layshock v. Hermitage Sch. Dist., 650 F.3d 205, 211 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Defendants move for summary judgment on two legal bases. First, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs’ claims are barred as a matter of law because Mr. Vu’s injuries were caused by an inherent risk of skiing. Second, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs’ claims are barred by the exculpatory release language contained on the Liberty Mountain lift ticket. Because we find that Mr. Vu’s injuries arose out of risks inherent to the sport of downhill skiing, we hold that Defendants are entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law without even considering the exculpatory release language of the lift ticket.
The material facts surrounding Mr. Vu’s accident are not in dispute. Though Mr. Vu and his daughter are unclear on the specifics, it is undisputed that Mr. Vu ended up skiing off of the trail, over a drop-off, and into a pile of rocks. (Doc. 37, ¶ 11). Mr. Vu testified that a snowboarder was getting too close to him and his “knee-jerk” reaction was to veer to avoid a collision, causing him [*9] to ski off of the trail and over the embankment. (Doc. 37, att. 1, pp. 65-66). Mr. Vu’s daughter also testified that her father’s accident occurred when he tried to avoid a collision with a snowboarder. (Doc. 42, att. 2, p. 8). While Defendants argumentatively refer to this person as the “phantom snowboarder” and question the credibility of the testimony, for purposes of this Motion we can take Plaintiffs’ facts as true and assume that Mr. Vu skied off of the trail, either intentionally or as a result of a knee-jerk reaction, to avoid colliding with a snowboarder. Even so, summary judgment must be granted in favor of the Defendants because Mr. Vu’s accident occurred as a result of inherent risks of downhill skiing.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly expressly preserved the doctrine of assumption of the risk as a defense in downhill skiing cases in the Skier’s Responsibility Act, recognizing that “there are inherent risks in the sport of downhill skiing.” 42 Pa. C.S. § 7102(c). As the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania explained, “[t]he assumption of the risk defense, as applied to sports and places of amusement, has also been described as a ‘no-duty’ rule, i.e., as the principle that an owner or operator of a [*10] place of amusement has no duty to protect the user from any hazards inherent in the activity.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 2 A.3d 1174, 1186 (2010) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 496A, cmt. C, 2). “Where there is no duty, there can be no negligence, and thus when inherent risks are involved, negligence principles are irrelevant–the Comparative Negligence Act is inapplicable–and there can be no recovery based on allegations of negligence.” Id.
In Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania established a two-part test for courts to use to determine whether a plaintiff’s claims are barred by the no duty rule of the Skier’s Responsibility Act. 762 A.2d 339, 343 (2000). “First, this Court must determine whether [the plaintiff] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of her injury.” Id. at 344. “If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk” of the circumstance that caused the plaintiff’s injury “is one of the ‘inherent risks’ of downhill skiing.” Id. If so, then summary judgment must be awarded against the plaintiff as a matter of law. Id. In the case at-bar, there can be no dispute that Mr. Vu was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of his accident. The salient question, therefore, becomes whether veering off-trail and over a drop-off into a pile [*11] of rocks to avoid a collision with a snowboarder are inherent risks of downhill skiing. If those risks are inherent to skiing, then Defendants had no duty to protect Mr. Vu. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1186. If those risks are not inherent, traditional principles of negligence apply and we must determine what duty the Defendants owed Mr. Vu, whether the Defendants breached that duty, and whether the breach caused Mr. Vu’s injuries.
We begin with a discussion of what it means for a risk to be “inherent.” The Hughes court explained that “inherent” risks are those that are “common, frequent, and expected” in downhill skiing. Id. In interpreting risks, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has instructed that “the clear legislative intent to preserve the assumption of the risk doctrine in this particular area, as well as the broad wording of the Act itself, dictates a practical and logical interpretation of what risks are inherent to the sport.” Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1187-88. “Accordingly, courts have rejected attempts by plaintiffs to define the injury producing risks in very a specific and narrow manner.” Cole v. Camelback Mountain Ski Resort, 2017 WL 4621786, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 16, 2017) (Mariani, J.). For example, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Chepkevich rejected the plaintiff’s argument that she did not assume the “specific [*12] risk” involved, looking instead to the “general risk” that gave rise to the accident. 2 A.3d at 1188. A number of courts have addressed the scope of the Skier’s Responsibility Act and have concluded that some of the inherent risks of downhill skiing include: lack of netting, improper course plotting, or soft snow1; skiing off trail and striking a tree2; collisions with unpadded snow equipment poles3; striking a fence on the edge of the trail4; and collisions with other skiers or snowboarders.5
1 Bjorgung v. Whitetail Resort, L.P., 550 F.3d 263 (3d Cir. 2008).
3 Smith v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 716 F.2d 1002 (3d Cir. 1983).
4 Cole, 2017 WL 4621786, at *5.
5 Hughes, 762 A.2d 339.
Before addressing the risks that Mr. Vu encountered, we must address Plaintiffs’ initial argument that the assumption of the risk doctrine is inapplicable. Plaintiffs argue that while Mr. Vu “was generally aware of the dangers of downhill skiing,” he was not aware “of the specific hazard of being ejected from the ski trail due to a steep 3 to 4 foot drop-off on that particular slope’s trail edge.” (Doc. 42, p. 8) (emphasis in original). Because there is no evidence that Mr. Vu had subjective awareness of these risks, Plaintiffs argue, the doctrine of assumption of the risk cannot apply. (Id. at pp. 9-13). For support of this argument, Plaintiffs cite several cases that are materially distinct from the case at-bar. First, Plaintiffs [*13] quote Barillari v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., “[i]t is not enough that the plaintiff was generally aware that the activity in which he was engaged had accompanying risks.” 986 F. Supp. 2d 555, 563 (M.D. Pa. 2013). Importantly, the court made this statement when analyzing the doctrine of voluntary assumption of the risk after determining that the Skier’s Responsibility Act was not applicable because the plaintiff was not engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of the accident. Id. at 561. The instruction of this quote is inapplicable to our consideration of the no duty doctrine of assumption of the risk.
Next, Plaintiffs rely heavily on Bolyard v. Wallenpaupack Lake Estates, Inc., 2012 WL 629391(M.D. Pa. Feb. 27, 2012) (Caputo, J.). In Bolyard, the plaintiff sued the defendant for negligence after sustaining injuries while snow tubing on the defendant’s property. Id. at *1. The court recognized that while the plaintiff had “general knowledge” of the dangers of snow tubing on the hill, she did not assume the risk because “there is no evidence in the record that she had any knowledge of the specific hazards of that particular slope.” Id. at *6. Plaintiffs argue that “[s]imilar to the patron in Bolyard,” Mr. Vu was only generally aware of the risks he could suffer while skiing and thus assumption of the risk is inapplicable. (Doc. [*14] 42, p. 8). We disagree.
Notably, the slope in Bolyard was an old slope that was not currently in operation. 2012 WL 629391, at *1. The court used principles of negligence as applicable to landowners and licensees to determine the duty owed to the plaintiff and, consequently, considered the doctrine of voluntary assumption of the risk as a defense. Id. at **3-6. Analyzing the present action under the no duty rule, we do not consider the defense of voluntary assumption of the risk; instead, we must determine whether Mr. Vu’s injuries arose out of an inherent risk of the sport of skiing such that the Defendants had no duty at all. Pursuant to Hughes and the Skier’s Responsibility Act, there is no duty to protect a skier from the inherent risks of skiing and therefore, “when inherent risks are involved, negligence principles are irrelevant.” Id.
Finally, Plaintiffs cite Perez v. Great Wolf Lodge of the Poconos LLC,6
Staub v. Toy Factory, Inc.,7
Jones v. Three Rivers Mgmt. Corp,8 and Telega v. Sec. Bureau, Inc.9 in support of their position that assumption of the risk does not apply because Mr. Vu did not appreciate the specific risks that caused his accident. To start, none of these cases address the Skier’s Responsibility [*15] Act. These cases discuss appreciation of specific risk only after determining that the no duty rule was inapplicable because the risk encountered was not inherent. Again, we reiterate that “[n]egligence principles are irrelevant where the ‘no duty’ rule applies.” Lin v. Spring Mountain Adventures, Inc., 2010 WL 5257648, at *7 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 23, 2010). Whether the no duty rule applies turns on whether Mr. Vu’s particular injuries arose out of risks inherent in the sport of skiing — an issue that is not dependent on a plaintiff’s subjective awareness of those specific risks.
6 200 F. Supp. 3d 471, 478 (M.D. Pa. 2016) (Mariani, J.).
7 749 A.2d 522, (Pa. Super. 2000).
8 483 Pa. 75, 85, 394 A.2d 546, 551 (1978).
9 719 A.2d 372, 376 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1998).
We now turn to the risks involved in Mr. Vu’s accident. The facts reveal two circumstances that gave rise to Mr. Vu’s injuries: (1) veering to avoid a collision with a snowboarder; and (2) skiing over the drop-off at the edge of the trail and into a pile of rocks. If these risks are inherent to the sport of downhill skiing, Plaintiffs’ claims cannot stand.
We can easily conclude that the first risk is inherent and gives rise to no duty on behalf of Defendants. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has specifically determined that the risk of collision with another person on the slope is inherent to the sport of downhill skiing: “the risk of colliding with another skier is one of the common, frequent and expected [*16] risks ‘inherent’ in downhill skiing. Indeed, other skiers are as much a part of the risk in downhill skiing, if not more so, than the snow and ice, elevation, contour, speed and weather conditions.” Hughes, 762 A.2d at 344. Likely in recognition of the clear case law, Plaintiffs do not argue in their brief in opposition to the Motion that avoiding a collision with a snowboarder is a risk that would give rise to a duty on behalf of Defendants. To the extent that Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence are premised on Mr. Vu’s avoidance of a collision with the snowboarder, those claims must fail.
Next, we consider whether skiing over the edge of the trail and encountering a three to four foot drop-off into a pile of rocks is an inherent risk of downhill skiing. Plaintiffs frame this risk as the primary cause of Mr. Vu’s injuries.10 “Simply put, the risk of ejectment from a ski trail due to a 3 to 4 foot drop off and striking one’s head on rocks and/or boulders . . . is not an inherent, frequent, common, and expected risk of skiing.” (Doc. 42, p. 11). All parties recognize that the drop-off was at the edge of the trail rather than a ditch or hole in the slope itself. Though Plaintiffs stress that Mr. Vu did not “willingly [*17] decide to ski off trail,” the distinction is of no consequence. Plaintiffs describe the incident in terms of Mr. Vu being “ejected” from the trail due to the embankment, but it is illogical to argue that the existence of the drop-off itself would cause a skier to go over it. Whether Mr. Vu did so intentionally, accidentally, or as a means of avoiding a collision, the incontrovertible fact is that Mr. Vu did, ultimately, ski off of the three to four foot edge of the trail.
10 “. . . the specific hazard of being ejected from the ski trail due to a steep 3 to 4 foot drop-off on that particular slope’s trail edge.” (Doc. 42, p. 8); “Even if Defendant could establish that having a 3 to 4 foot trail edge drop presents a danger inherent to the sport of skiing . . .” (Id. at p. 9); “. . . he was ejected from the trail when attempting to avoid a collision and was confronted with a 3 to 4 foot drop in elevation from the ski trail.” (Id. at p. 11).
We hold that the risk of skiing off trail and suffering from the change of elevation between the trail and surrounding terrain is an inherent risk of downhill skiing. Mr. Vu was an experienced skier who was well aware of the risks of skiing off the designated slope; he testified repeatedly that he “would never ski off-trail.” (Doc. 41, att. 1, p. 43). He had previously skied at Liberty Mountain on multiple occasions and could not remember ever complaining about the trail or trail markings. (Id. at pp. 35-36). Additionally, Mr. Vu’s daughter testified that she did not have any difficulty discerning the edge of the slope where her father went off trail the evening of the accident. (Doc. 41, att. 2, p. 14). It would be irrational for [*18] any court to hold that skiing off trail and encountering dangerous terrain is not an inherent risk of the sport of downhill skiing — ski slopes are marked and maintained in appreciation of this risk, and beginner and experienced skiers alike know to stay within the trail limits to avoid injury. Mr. Vu himself testified that he understood that he could run into trees, rocks, boulders, or snowmaking equipment if he skied off trail. (Doc. 37, att. 1, p. 71).
We struggled to find case law on point to support our holding because we believe it to be such a common sense and logical conclusion that does not require in-depth analysis. One case from the New York appellate court, however, was particularly analogous. In Atwell v. State, the plaintiff was skiing near the edge of the trail when he observed a “floundering” skier in his path. 645 N.Y.S.2d 658, 659 (1996). Plaintiff “instinctively reacted and turned without thinking” to avoid a collision and ended up skiing off trail and into a tree. Id. The court easily found that plaintiff’s injuries were due to inherent risks of skiing. Id. at 650. “[F]rom claimant’s own description of the accident, there can be no dispute that everything he encountered, including the skier he turned [*19] to avoid hitting, the berm at the edge of the trail referred to by claimant’s expert and the tree with which he collided, are all statutorily recognized as inherent dangers of skiing.” The court noted that “[c]laimant chose to ski near the edge of the trail and there is nothing in the record to indicate that the location of the edge of the trail was not readily observable to him.” Id. Similarly here, Mr. Vu was an experienced skier who chose to ski near the edge of the slope. He had a knee-jerk reaction to avoid a skier, and ended up veering off of the trail and suffering from the elevation change and his collision with rocks. Not only is there a lack of any evidence that the edge of the trail was difficult to discern, but Mr. Vu’s daughter testified at length about how her father was close to the edge of the trail and specifically stated that she could observe the edge of the slope without difficulty. (Doc. 41, att. 2, p. 14).
We agree with the Supreme Court of New Hampshire, which simply held: “Even the most generous reading of the plaintiff’s pleadings reveals the chief cause of his injuries to be an unenumerated, yet quintessential risk of skiing: that a skier might lose control [*20] and ski off the trail. By participating in the sport of skiing, a skier assumes this inherent risk and may not recover against a ski area operator for resulting injuries.” Nutbrown v. Mount Cranmore, Inc., 140 N.H. 675, 684, 671 A.2d 548, 553 (1996).
For the foregoing reasons, the Motion shall be granted. A separate order shall issue in accordance with this memorandum.
Presently before the Court is Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 36). In conformity with the Memorandum issued on today’s date, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED THAT:
1. Defendants’ motion for summary judgment (Doc. 36) is GRANTED.
2. The Clerk of the Court SHALL CLOSE the file on this case.
/s/ John E. Jones III
John E. Jones III
United States District Judge
Raven Renee Ray, Plaintiff, v. Steve A. Lesniak, Defendant.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA, CHARLESTON DIVISION
2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28301
February 22, 2018, Decided
February 22, 2018, Filed
CORE TERMS: sheet, boat, brain, crew members, traumatic, pain, sailboat, captain, gybe, admiralty, passenger, maneuver, sailing, vessel, medication, symptoms, present value, guest, experienced, emotional, headaches, safe, hit, suffering, lookout, sit, citation omitted, concussion, sitting, opined
COUNSEL: [*1] For Raven Renee Ray, Plaintiff: Benjamin Catlett Smoot, II, William P Early, LEAD ATTORNEY, Pierce Herns Sloan and McLeod, Charleston, SC; Theodore Augustus Consta Hargrove, II, Pierce Herns Sloan and Wilson LLC, Charleston, SC.
For Steve A Lesniak, Defendant: Joseph R Weston, Stephanie A Phillips, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Weston Law Firm, Mt Pleasant, SC.
JUDGES: DAVID C. NORTON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
OPINION BY: DAVID C. NORTON
Plaintiff Raven Renee Ray (“Ray”) brought this admiralty action against Defendant Steve A. Lesniak (“Lesniak”) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(h). Ray is suing Lesniak for personal injuries and other damages she sustained as a result of being struck by the main sheet during a sailing race on Lesniak’s boat “the Celadon.”
The court tried this case without a jury on September 18, 2017. Having considered the testimony and the exhibits admitted at trial, as well as the parties’ pre-trial briefs and post-trial proposed findings and conclusions, the court now makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a). It finds that Lesniak was negligent in his captaining of the Celadon, that Ray suffered an injury while an invited guest on the Celadon as a result of Lesniak’s negligence, and [*2] that as a result of this injury Ray has a permanent traumatic brain injury. It awards $958,758.15 in damages. This award, in the court’s eyes, gives Ray what she deserves–“just some justice, some recognition and help.” Tr. 135:24.
FINDINGS OF FACT1
1 These findings are based on the preponderance of the evidence presented to the court.
1. At the time of the incident at issue, Ray was a 29-year-old female working two jobs in the food and beverage industry, volunteering at an acupuncture clinic, and simultaneously pursuing advanced degrees in psychology and clinical counseling at The Citadel. Ray had never been on a sailboat before the day of the incident.
2. At the time of the incident, 57-year-old Lesniak was the owner, operator, and captain of the sailboat Celadon on which the incident occurred. Lesniak is an experienced captain, who has 35 years of sailing experience–including 25 years of sailing experience in Charleston. Tr. 205:15-17. He has captained “several hundred, maybe a thousand” sailboat races. Tr. 205:18-20. He has been sailing with some of the crew members that were on the Celadon at the time of the incident for “15, 20 years.” Tr. 205:24-206:7.
3. The sailboat Celadon on which the incident occurred is a fifty-one foot, 1995 Beneteau Oceanis 510 registered in [*3] Charleston County, South Carolina. At the time of the incident, Lesniak had owned and operated the Celadon for approximately fifteen years.
4. Operation of the sailboat during a race requires several crewmembers. Thirteen crewmembers and a number of guests were aboard the sailboat on the day of the incident. Tr. 182:1-183:1.
A. The Accident:
1. The court now turns to the day of the incident, May 21, 2014. Ray was invited to a sailboat race by Colin Skinner (“Skinner”), who Ray knew as a “regular” customer at the Oak Bar Tavern where she worked. Tr. 106:14-20. Skinner was a crew member on the Celadon. Tr. 184:3-6. Skinner has been sailing with Lesniak for “[r]oughly five years.” Tr. 206:20-22. Lesniak allowed Skinner to invite a guest on the boat. Tr. 184:5-6.
2. The other crew members who were on the Celadon during the incident had years of sailing experience, many as crew members with Lesniak. Tr. 206:10-208:4. Of the crew members on the boat at the time of the incident, at least three had medical backgrounds, ranging from Emergency Room nurse to thoracic surgeon. Tr. 206:10-208:9. Lesniak testified that these crew members had previously taken action if anyone suffered an injury on the [*4] boat during sailing races and trips. Tr. 209:21-210:5.
3. Lesniak testified that all of his crew members “[knew] to look after new people.” Tr. 208:18-21.
4. Lesniak authorized crew members to perform tasks during the race, including telling guests when and where to move during the course of the race. Tr. 209:1-20.
5. Ray and Skinner arrived at the Carolina Yacht Club, the marina where the yacht was docked. Tr. 107:7-12. When she got to the boat, there were “many” people on the boat, including crew members and guests. Tr. 108:1-4. Ray testified that she did not know anyone on the boat other than Skinner. Tr. 108:5-6.
6. Before May 21st, 2014, Ray had never been on a sailboat. Tr. 106:21-107:1. She knew nothing about how a sailboat worked. Tr. 107:2-4.
7. Lesniak did not give safety instructions to any of the guests, including Ray, who was on the Celadon. Tr. 184:12-17. He also did not give any written instructions to guests. Tr. 187:2-6. Furthermore, he did not have a written safety checklist or conduct a safety and operational briefing before the Celadon left the marina. Tr. 187:16-21. At the time of the incident, there were no safety placards or visual displays on the Celadon stating [*5] that there were dangerous places to sit on the boat, such as “around any rope, boom.” Tr. 186:20-187:1. Lesniak delegated the giving of safety instructions to two crew members, neither of whom testified during the trial. Tr. 14:16-185:6. Lesniak did not hear what safety talks were given to guests because he was at the helm of the boat. Tr. 185:5-9.
8. Ray was late to the start of the boat race and was given an abbreviated version of the “safety talk” by crew members, which involved an instruction on where not to sit on the boat. Tr. 192:10-18.
9. Upon arriving on the Celadon, Skinner placed Ray at the position where she was sitting when the main sheet hit her. Tr. 264:8-265:19. Ray was seated on the deck of the Celadon, near the main sheet. Ex. 13.
10. The crew was aware of where Ray was sitting. Tr. 204:4-6.
11. Within 5-10 minutes of Ray stepping on board the Celadon, the incident occurred. Tr. 194:2-5.
12. Before she was hit, Ray was given instructions by crew members to “get more neighborly, get closer together.” Tr. 114:2-3. Specifically, crew member Dawn Truog (“Truog”) asked Ray, who was sitting in front of the main sheet, to “move back from the [main] sheet.” Tr. 250:16-25. There [*6] was no evidence presented that Ray knew what a “main sheet” was. Crew member Mary Anne Becker (“Becker”) also testified, stating that she “told [Ray] specifically to move, move up front, move forward” multiple times, because Ray “was going to be brushed by the sheets” when the boat gybed. Tr. 257:6-12. Becker further testified that even after these verbal warnings to move, Ray “didn’t move,” and “the next thing” Becker knew was Ray “down on the gutter” of the boat. Tr. 257:17-20.
13. Lesniak made the decision to gybe, which is the action that caused the main sheet to strike Ray. Tr. 199:16-17. When the captain executes a gybe maneuver, as Lesniak did here, the main sheet moves across the deck of the boat. Tr. 221:14-25.
14. Lesniak testified that members of his crew told Ray to move “several times” and that the crew members were aware that she did not move–even after Lesniak had called for the gybe maneuver. Tr. 213:22-214:5. For example, Truog was aware that Ray was sitting in front of the main sheet when Lesniak gybed. Tr. 254:25-255:3. Truog saw “the boom [come] over, and that [Ray] was pushed down to the side of the boat.” Tr. 251:9-18.
15. If Lesniak had waited to gybe or made sure [*7] that Ray was in a safe location, Ray would not have been hit by the main sheet. Tr. 202:9-13.
16. After Lesniak did the gybe maneuver, Ray was hit by the main sheet, the force of which threw her from her seated position onto the deck of the boat. Tr. 115:14-20. The main sheet carries a significant amount of pressure, “absolutely” enough to cause a serious injury. Tr. 237:6-25. Lesniak saw the main sheet strike Ray. Tr. 198:25-199:6.
17. The court considered the testimony of various crew members who were on the Celadon during the incident. For example, Dr. Bill Lynch testified about the main sheet hitting Ray. Additionally, he testified that he did not give any safety instructions to Ray, and was not aware of any sailing experience that she had. Tr. 247:1-6.
18. Ray was left with an abrasion on her forehead as a result of the main sheet hitting her. Pl.’s Ex. 2.
19. After Ray was injured, Lesniak did not turn the boat around. Tr. 117:5-12. Lesniak continued with the boat race. Tr. 148:10-18.
B. Breach of Safety Protocol:
1. Ray testified about the instructions she was given when she got on the Celadon. Specifically, Ray stated that she was “told where the lines were” and where to sit. Tr. [*8] 109:18-23. She was given these instructions and told where to sit by a crew member, “Peggy.” Tr. 110:6-9. She was not warned that she “might get hit in the head with a boom or a rope or anything like that.” Tr. 110:10-17. There were also no written instructions on the “hull or deck of the boat or bow or the stern, starboard side” that said where to sit, and no one gave written instructions to Ray when she was on the boat. Tr. 110:18-24. There was also no formal verbal safety briefing. Tr. 111:4-7.
2. Ray did not hear, and “wouldn’t have understood” any instructions on whether the boom or main sheet were going to swing during the course of the race. Tr. 115:1-4.
3. The court also credits the testimony of Ray’s expert Captain Ken Wahl (“Wahl”), who the court qualified as a boating expert and marine safety consultant. Tr. 214:20-215:9. Wahl opined that competitive sailboat racing “requires a large number of experienced crew to adequately handle the fast-paced activities normally observed during this often dangerous and close quarters style of competitive sailing.” Ex. 1 at 8. Wahl further opined that “[o]nly highly experienced persons should be aboard for these events.” Id. Based on his [*9] review of the evidence, Wahl testified that “there appeared to be a lot of people” on the Celadon, and that “safe places . . . were probably a little bit difficult to find.” Tr. 220:1-9.
4. Wahl opined that Lesniak, who had captained hundreds of races, became “complacent” by delegating the “safety orientation” for guests to crew members. Tr. 225:9-226:3.
5. Wahl testified that when a boat race begins, “[t]here’s some very dangerous places to be on board the boat . . . [a]nd it’s certainly not a safe place to be right near the main sheet.” Tr. 221:10-13. Accordingly, Ray, who was seated on the deck of the boat near the main sheet, was in a dangerous position. Tr. 222:1-6.
6. Specifically, Wahl opined that “[m]oving isn’t quite enough” “when somebody doesn’t know anything about a sailboat, because they don’t know where to move to.” Tr. 223:23-25. The proper procedure for a crew member to ensure that Ray was moved safely to another area of the boat was for Lesniak or a crew member to physically ensure that she had been moved to a safer place. Tr. 226:14-227:16. Simply telling a novice passenger like Ray who had never been on a sailboat to move was insufficient, and a breach of safety protocol. [*10] Tr. 227:9-21.
7. Wahl further opined that it was in contravention of boat safety protocol for Lesniak to gybe while Ray was sitting next to the main sheet, as gybing the boat necessarily causes a movement of the main sheet. Tr. 223:14-19. Wahl offered suggestions on what safety protocol Lesniak should have followed in that scenario, such as “[d]elay the gybe, get somebody to move that person, tell them where to sit, where the safe spot is.” Tr. 223:16-22. Lesniak did none of these things.
8. When a captain changes the position of the sails, such as the gybe maneuver that Lesniak performed, Wahl testified that the captain “typically” will call out to the crew and let the crew members know that he will be changing the position of the sails. Tr. 238:16-239:4.
C. Comparative Negligence:
1. Ray was told to move away from the main sheet by multiple crew members, including Truog and Becker, but did not move. Tr. 257:17-20.
2. After getting hit by the main sheet, Ray did not ask anyone for medical attention and did not appear to be in need of any medical attention. Tr. 210:6-23.
3. When Ray got off the Celadon at the conclusion of the race, Lesniak asked her if she was “okay” and she replied that [*11] “she was fine.” Tr. 210:24-25.
4. A few days after the incident, Lesniak contacted Ray to give her the option of going to see Bill Lynch, a crew member on the Celadon during the incident and a doctor, at no cost. Tr. 210:1-5. Ray declined. Tr. 210:1-5.
D. Causation of Traumatic Brain Injury:
1. Two days after the incident, Ray went to Nason Medical Center because she was experiencing “extreme body pain.” Tr. 119:17-24. Within seven days of the incident, Ray began experiencing different symptoms–namely, debilitating nausea and headaches. Tr. 120:11-21. Ray was “extremely” confused when she went to the Medical University of South Carolina (“MUSC”) the week after the incident as a result of her new symptoms. Tr. 121:1-6. At MUSC, Ray was referred to a neurologist who diagnosed Ray with a concussion and prescribed medications for a head injury. Tr. 121:7-25.
2. The only medical expert who testified during the trial was Dr. Marshall Allen White (“Dr. White”), a board-certified neurologist.2 Tr. 8:15-16. Dr. White treats patients with traumatic brain injuries as part of his practice on “nearly a daily basis,” and has done so since 1991. Dr. White has testified in the past as to both the diagnoses [*12] and causation of traumatic brain injuries. The court credits Dr. White as an expert in the field of traumatic brain injuries. Tr. 9:21-10:17. Dr. White examined Ray, and reviewed the following medical records: (1) Nason Medical Center; (2) MUSC; (3) Dr. Jeffrey Buncher, a pain management physician in Charleston, South Carolina; (4) physical therapy records; (5) acupuncture records; (6) neuropsychological testing performed by Dr. Randolph Waid; and (7) psychiatric records from Dr. Kurtzman. Tr. 11:1-21. Dr. White testified that, based on his examination of Ray, a review of her medical records, and consulting with peer-reviewed articles, Ray sustained a traumatic brain injury. Tr. 12:5-12. Specifically, Dr. White testified that Ray had the symptoms of a concussion immediately following the incident, in that she was “dazed, confused,” and the morning after the event she felt “that she was not going to be able to wake up,” which Dr. White testified indicated “a level of hypersomnolence, which is typical following a concussion.” Tr. 12:17-13:1. Dr. White further testified that compared to “baseline records” that were “pretty close in proximity” to the incident, he observed that Ray had [*13] “heightened levels of anxiety, trepidation, moodiness, difficulty sleeping after the period of hypersomnolence, difficulty focusing, poor memory, and anxiety levels which were dramatically increased from her baseline levels.” Tr. 13:2-10. All of these symptoms of traumatic brain injury, according to Dr. White, were caused by the head trauma that Ray suffered during the incident. Tr. 13:11-15.
3. According to Dr. White, Ray’s traumatic brain injury is “permanent.” Tr. 13:16-18. All three of these opinions–that Ray had a traumatic brain injury, that the brain injury was permanent, and that the brain injury was the result of the incident on the Celadon–Dr. White testified that he held to a “reasonable degree of medical certainty.” Tr. 13:19-22. Specifically, in his report, Dr. White states that:
It is my opinion to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that Ms. Ray experienced traumatic brain injury as a result of her sailing incident, which occurred in 2014. There is ample evidence of headache, nausea, vomiting, and worsening in her neuropsychiatric syndrome and cognitive abilities following the incident . . . It is further my opinion that Ms. Ray would clearly have academic, social [*14] and occupational difficulties throughout every facet of her life.
Pl.’s Ex. 4. Dr. White further testified that when he examined Ray, she was having emotional and concentration issues that he attributed to her “residual [traumatic brain injury] symptomology,” and that this was consistent with a patient with her level of brain injury. Tr. 28:13-23.
4. Dr. White also testified at length about Ray’s post-incident treatment in the week after the incident, based on his review of her medical records. At Nason, Dr. White testified that no diagnostic testing was performed, and instead Nason “basically gave her pain medicine and sent her home.” Tr. 17:9-11. Then, Ray went to the MUSC emergency room, where she was “evaluated and treated” for “neck and back pain.” Tr. 17:14-15. Ray then returned to MUSC with “complaints of pain,” and returned once again within five days of the injury “complaining of headaches” as well as nausea and vomiting. Tr. 17:19-23. These symptoms of headaches, nausea, and vomiting, were, Dr. White testified, symptoms of a concussion. Tr. 18:11-14. Based on his review of Ray’s medical records and after taking her medical history, Dr. White concluded that Ray had “a lot” of [*15] the symptoms of the postconcussive syndrome. Tr. 20:5-9.
5. Lesniak argued at various points during the bench trial that Ray did not immediately experience any symptoms of headaches, nausea, and vomiting while on the Celadon or the next day. However, Dr. White testified that there can be “delayed effects from concussion.” Tr. 35:24. Furthermore, Ray had consumed at least one beer immediately before the incident. Alcohol consumption, Dr. White testified, would impair Ray’s ability to recognize her symptoms. Tr. 36:6-11.
6. Dr. White testified that postconcussive headaches such as the ones that Ray experienced can be developed “within seven days of the concussion itself.” Tr. 18:22-24. Indeed, Dr. White testified on the types of symptoms during the “days and weeks” after a concussion, and stated that there can be “difficulty concentrating, moodiness, hypersomnolence . . . [a]nxiety . . . headaches, nausea, and vomiting.” Tr. 19:1-17.
7. Ray had a CT scan done at MUSC, which had normal results, but Dr. White testified that the normal CT scan did not disturb his opinion that Ray had a traumatic brain injury, as mild traumatic brain injury patients will have “under almost all circumstances [*16] . . . normal imaging.” Tr. 21:18-22:2. Indeed, Dr. White testified that a normal CT scan was “expected” for patients with mild traumatic brain injury. Tr. 22:3-6.
8. The court considered that Ray was not diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, or indeed any injury at all, by any emergency room physicians in her visits to Nason or the MUSC ER. But, according to Dr. White, the peer-reviewed literature in the field is clear that mild traumatic brain injuries “can be overlooked,” even by emergency room physicians. Tr. 36:2-5. Furthermore, in none of the medical visits that Ray had in the immediate aftermath of the incident did she have any cognitive testing done that would have detected such cases of traumatic brain injury. Tr. 52:11-60:4.
9. Dr. Kurtzman, a psychiatrist who examined Ray on May 1st before the incident, indicated that Ray was working on her graduate thesis and had no “uncontrolled anxiety or crying spells.” This psychiatric record is closest in proximity to the incident. Tr. 14:13-15:11. Dr. Kurtzman’s psychiatric record further indicates that as of May 1st, Ray was a “student, working doing marketing, volunteering, and doing research–all while supporting herself financially.” [*17] Tr. 15:12-20. In his treatment notes for Ray after the incident, Dr. Kurtzman stated that Ray had “suffered . . . emotionally and physically from an injury sustained from being hit by a sailboat boom . . . I’m concerned about her emotional prognosis and her emotional upset secondary to the accident.” Tr. 23:6-24:4. Dr. Kurtzman also prescribed Ray the medication Adderall, which Dr. White testified is an “amphetamine stimulant” that is “used for patients with [traumatic brain injury] who are having difficulty concentrating.” Tr. 24:5-15. Concentration and attention problems such as those treated with Adderall are consistent with the diagnosis of mild traumatic brain injury, Dr. White testified. Tr. 24:16. Dr. White further testified that during his examination and interview with Ray, she stated that she experienced those symptoms for the first time after the date of the incident. Tr. 24:19-22. Ray testified that she had never been prescribed Adderall or psychostimulants before the incident. Tr. 101:14-102:7. At the direction of her doctor, Ray has been taking Adderall in increasing doses since the incident. Tr. 126:22-11.
10. The court acknowledges that prior to the incident, Ray was [*18] on the medication Klonopin to treat anxiety. Tr. 16:2-9. However, Dr. Kurtzman was on a successful program to wean Ray off of Klonopin. Tr. 16:10-16. Ray testified that she was in the process of “taper[ing] off” the anti-anxiety medication. Tr. 102:16-103:4. The court also acknowledges that Ray suffered from general anxiety disorder, which can have symptoms similar to those found in someone with a concussion. Relatedly, the court has considered Ray’s testimony about the circumstances of her unfortunate upbringing, including her time in foster care and her intermittent history with prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. Tr. 92:1-99:3. The court credits Dr. White’s opinion–that the temporal relationship between the incident and the onset of symptoms supports a finding that Ray was not suffering from her historical general anxiety disorder, but from the head trauma she received as a result of the incident. Tr. 48:4-20.
11. Ray was seen by Dr. Woodard, a neurologist at MUSC, “several months” after the incident. Dr. Woodard also diagnosed Ray as having postconcussion syndrome, and placed her on gabapentin and nortriptyline. Nortriptyline is used to treat headaches, while [*19] gabapentin is used to treat headaches, mood disturbances, and sleep. Tr. 20:12-21:14.
12. On July 28, 2015, Ray had neuropsychological testing, which discerns whether there are “cognitive or emotional deficits related to injury” performed by Dr. Randolph Waid. Tr. 25:1-14. Specifically, Dr. Waid employed the Conners Continuous Performance Test II to assess Ray’s “attentional abilities.” Tr. 25:14-24. Based on Ray’s pre-incident level of functioning, Dr. Waid felt that Ray’s concentration abilities, which were in the ninth percentile, were low. Tr. 26:2-5. Ray had a “very high GPA” in her college and graduate work before the incident. Tr. 26:11-12. Ray had a 3.7 GPA at the College of Charleston. Tr. 101:5-7. The cause of the decrease in Ray’s attention between college and the day that Dr. Waid performed his neurophysical testing was, in Dr. White’s opinion, the traumatic brain injury that she suffered as a result of the incident. Tr. 26:15-18.
13. Ray also saw Dr. Jeffrey Buncher for injuries related to the incident. Ray had pain management issues before the incident, specifically with chronic neck and back pain. Ex. 8. But Ray’s pain problems with her sacrum were, in Dr. White’s opinion, [*20] “exacerbated” by the incident. Tr. 27:1-21.
14. Dr. White offered a future treatment plan to treat Ray’s permanent condition and opined that “there are a number of interventions that ought to be taken in her care that are currently not being taken” and that Ray was not receiving treatment from any doctors who treated traumatic brain injuries. Tr. 30:1-32:2. Dr. White also testified about the cash prices of the drugs necessary for the future treatment plan. Tr. 32:14-33:15.
15. The court also considered the testimony of Chad Houfek (“Houfek”), an acupuncturist and the owner of Charleston Community Acupuncture. Tr. 81:11-23. Houfek knew Ray as a patient as well as a volunteer at Charleston Community Acupuncture. Tr. 82:2. In her capacity as a volunteer, Ray worked answering phones, scheduling appointments, and also helped with bookkeeping. Tr. 82:11-83:8. Houfek testified about how Ray was different after the incident, from a treatment perspective, explaining that she came in for acupuncture a week after the incident, and that “she had a big mark on her temple, and she was very upset, she was crying and very scared, didn’t really know what to do, and she had a lot of neck pain.” Tr. 83:9-19. [*21] When Ray had her acupuncture appointment on May 28th, approximately one week after the incident, Houfek recorded in his session notes that Ray was “postconcussion,” and that what she was experiencing included sensitivity to stimulus and headaches. Tr. 84:9-18. After the incident, Houfek continued to treat Ray, and stated that he was treating her mostly for neck pain and lower back pain, as well as insomnia, and “extreme emotional.” Tr. 87:4-9.
16. Houfek also testified about the changes in Ray as a volunteer after the incident. Before the incident, Houfek described Ray as “awesome,” as an employee who was “very friendly,” who “always showed up on time,” and “took initiative.” Tr. 85:7-15. But after the incident, Houfek testified that Ray was “always late,” “very very scattered,” and that “communicating with her was difficult.” Tr. 85:17-25. Houfek further testified that he had not experienced any of those problems with Ray before the incident. Tr. 86:2-4.
17. The court has considered the reports and treatments notes of the doctors, including pain management specialists and neurologists, that Ray has seen since the incident. Ex. 10. In conjunction with Dr. White’s testimony, these medical [*22] documents support the conclusion that Ray suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of the injury she suffered on the Celadon.
18. Prior to the incident, Ray testified that “[l]ife was great,” and that she “was excited for finishing” her master’s thesis at the Citadel and continuing on for her Ph.D. Tr. 103:18-25. In addition to being in the master’s program at the Citadel, Ray was also working at the restaurant Oak Barrel four nights a week, Tr. 104:19-24, in the tasting room at the restaurant Freehouse two nights a week, Tr. 104:15-105:1. She was also volunteering with Charleston Community Acupuncture and doing research. Tr. 105:17-24. She testified that despite this busy schedule she never had any problems with attention before the incident. Tr. 106:1-11.
19. Since the incident, Ray has had suicidal ideations. Tr. 124:22-125:9. She has also been suffering from giggling issues and other inappropriate responses to stimuli, which never occurred before the incident. Tr. 127:19-25. As a result of these issues, as well as the problems in concentration and attention, her professors at the Citadel have expressed “legitimate concerns” about her ability to complete the graduate program. [*23] Tr. 127:19-25; 132:1-9. Furthermore, since the incident Ray has lost her jobs at the Oak Barrel and the Freehouse. Tr. 128:16-19. Ray attributes both of these job losses to the incident. For example, as a result of the injuries she sustained, Ray has had to ask her customers and friends to come and help her while she was at the bar. Tr. 129:1-10. Additionally, when there were stimuli such as music or “certain sounds,” Ray would run out of the bar and “leave the entire bar empty, and cry in the alley.” Tr. 129:4-11. Before the incident, Ray did not have these problems at work.
20. Since the incident, Ray has had physical and psychological problems. Physically, she has had trouble sleeping, has “nerve pain down the back of her leg,” and tension headaches. Tr. 130:13-131:21. She now also has communication issues, which have affected her interpersonal, professional, and educational goals. Tr. 136:21-137:13.
21. The court considered the medical bills that Ray has incurred, between the date of the incident and present. Pl.’s Ex. 10. Ray does not have health insurance. Tr. 123:4-7. The total medical bills for her injury totaled $20, 480.70. Pl.’s Ex. 10. By the time of trial, Ray had incurred [*24] the following expenses to treat her injuries:
|a.||Nason Medical Center||$127.00|
|g.||Charleston Community Acunpuncture||$3,130.00|
2 Lesniak objects to allowing Dr. White to testify on the subject of future treatment. However, Ray disclosed Dr. White as one of her treating physicians and produced Dr. White’s medical evaluation of Ray, wherein Dr. White opined that Ray had sustained a permanent traumatic brain injury. The court is convinced that Dr. White’s written report and opinion of Ray’s permanent injury gave Lesniak adequate notice that Ray would need continued medical evaluation and treatment for her condition for the rest of her life. Ray disclosed Dr. White as an expert in neurological medicine and pain management in compliance with all relevant expert disclosure requirements and deadlines. Lesniak made the decision to decline to take Dr. White’s deposition, offer his own medical expert disputing the diagnosis of traumatic brain injury or offer an alternative future treatment plan, or to request any additional information from Dr. White regarding his evaluation of Ray. At the very least, Lesniak was on notice that as a result of the incident, Ray had already spent a significant amount of money on medical treatment including $2,255.70 on medication alone. Certainly, Ray’s medical bills were turned over during discovery. Therefore, the court overrules Lesniak’s objection.
III. CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
Based on the testimony of all of Lesniak’s crew members and all experts, including Ray’s expert Captain Wahl, Lesniak was negligent in doing a gybe maneuver when he and his crew members knew or should have known that Ray was sitting in front of the main sheet which is a dangerous place to sit. Prior to undertaking the gybe maneuver during the sailboat race, Lesniak had a duty to: (1) properly administer safety briefings to Ray that included where the safe places to sit on the boat were during the race; (2) warn Ray that the gybe maneuver was going to be undertaken; (3) not gybe until Ray was no longer sitting in front of the main sheet; and (4) not hit Ray with the main sheet rope during the gybe maneuver. A failure to follow safety precautions, including telling Ray where to move and delaying the gybe maneuver until Ray had moved to a safe place, was [*25] a breach of Lesniak’s duty to Ray. The court further finds that it was completely foreseeable to Lesniak that Ray could be injured by his failure to warn her that a gybe maneuver was going to be undertaken that would involve moving the main sheet that she was sitting directly in front of, and his failure to prevent the main sheet from hitting Ray. Lesniak’s negligence was a proximate cause of Ray’s injuries; but for this breach of duty, Ray’s injuries would not have occurred.
However, Lesniak has presented sufficient evidence to support the allegation in his Answer that Ray was comparatively negligent. Specifically, Ray failed to pay attention to warnings from multiple crew members to move from her position in front of the main sheet rope. Ray was to blame, in part, for being hit by the main sheet. The court finds that Ray was 25% to blame, and so reduces her damages by 25%.
As a direct result of Lesniak’s failure to exercise the proper degree of skill required, Ray sustained injuries and damages, as discussed below. In making the above findings of fact, reference has been made to pertinent portions of the testimony and exhibits introduced into evidence; however, the court has taken [*26] into consideration all of the evidence presented. The court specifically finds the evidence, after considering the appearance, demeanor and qualifications of the witnesses and the testimony as a whole, supports each of its findings by a preponderance of the evidence.
A. Jurisdiction and Applicable Law
Federal admiralty jurisdiction exists where, as here, conditions of both (1) location and (2) a connection with maritime activity are satisfied. Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527, 534, 115 S. Ct. 1043, 130 L. Ed. 2d 1024, (1995). Admiralty jurisdiction extends to injuries involving recreational vessels such as the Celadon. See Oliver by Oliver v. Hardesty, 745 F.2d 317, 320 (4th Cir. 1984) (admiralty jurisdiction exists over a case involving a collision between a swimmer and a pleasure boat because the claim was based on an allegation of negligent navigation of the boat). The portion of the Charleston Harbor where the incident occurred constitutes navigable waters of the United States, and being struck by the main sheet of a racing sailboat has a connection to maritime activity. Accordingly, the court has subject matter jurisdiction of this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1333. See Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358, 364-65, 110 S. Ct. 2892, 111 L. Ed. 2d 292 (1990).
Cases involving a tort committed on navigable waters are governed by federal admiralty law. Byrd v. Byrd, 657 F.2d 615, 617 (4th Cir. 1981) (citation omitted). However, if there is no admiralty rule for a particular [*27] issue, the court looks to state law to supply the rule of decision. Id. “This rule is especially true in negligence causes of action,” which is the cause of action that Ray asserts. Schumacher v. Cooper, 850 F. Supp. 438, 447 (D.S.C. 1994) (citation omitted). Therefore, to the extent admiralty law is not directly on point, ordinary negligence law applies.
B. Lesniak’s Liability
To establish her claim, Ray must prove that Lesniak’s negligent operation of the Celadon harmed her. The elements of negligence are duty, a breach of that duty, proximate cause, and resulting injury. Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. at 447 (internal citations omitted).
It is well-established in general maritime law that a vessel operator has a duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of his passengers. See Bubla v. Bradshaw, 795 F.2d 349, 353 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 630, 79 S. Ct. 406, 3 L. Ed. 2d 550 (1959)). Lesniak was the captain, and so was in charge of the vessel at the time of Ray’s injury. As such, he was charged with a duty of care to his passengers. This standard of care owed to a passenger by a vessel operator under maritime law is reasonable care under the circumstances at that particular time in each case. Id. “The extent to which circumstances surrounding maritime travel are different than those encountered in daily life and involve more danger to passengers, will determine [*28] how high a degree is reasonable in each case.” Keefe v. Bahama Cruise Line, Inc., 867 F.2d 1318, 1322 (11th Cir. 1989) (quoting Rainey v. Paquet Cruises, Inc., 709 F.2d 169, 172 (2nd Cir. 1983)). In this case, the circumstances surrounding a sailboat participating in a race in the Charleston harbor call for a heightened degree of care. Additionally, before stepping on board the Celadon, Ray had never before been on a sailboat, a fact of which Lesniak was unaware of and failed to inquire about.
A vessel operator also “has a duty to maintain a proper lookout by sight and by hearing” while the boat is travelling through navigable waters. Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. at 447. “This duty stems from general concepts of prudent seamanship as well as from the [regulations] governing the navigation of vessels.” Id. As a matter of prudent seamanship, “the performance of lookout duty is an inexorable requirement of prudent navigation.” Anthony v. Int’l Paper Co., 289 F.2d 574, 580 (4th Cir. 1961). Rule 5 of the Inland Navigation Rules states that “[e]very vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.” 33 C.F.R. § 83.05. Rule 5 perpetuates the common-law duty discussed in Anthony. Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. at 448 (citation omitted). It imposes a duty of proper lookout upon the operator of a pleasure [*29] craft such as the Celadon. See Todd v. Schneider, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25192, 2003 WL 23514560, at *11 (D.S.C. Dec. 8, 2003). Importantly, “[w]hoever is keeping a lookout must be able to give proper attention to that task and should not . . . undertake duties that would interfere with this function.” Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. at 448 (citation omitted).
“The duty to maintain a proper look-out, whether regulatory or customary, varies with the circumstances of each situation. When circumstances demand unusual care in navigation, such care should be used.” Id. at 449-50 (internal citations omitted). That higher level of care was required here, as Ray was an invited guest aboard a sailboat involved in a race in the Charleston harbor.
Lesniak was the owner, captain, and operator of the sailboat and was in control of its operation at all times. Ray was Lesniak’s passenger and guest. Although Lesniak designated his crewmembers to administer safety instructions to the passengers, as captain, Lesniak was ultimately responsible for the safety of the crewmembers and guests. Thus, Lesniak owed Ray a duty to maintain a proper lookout at all times during the Celadon’s outing.
Ray offered the testimony of Captain Wahl as her liability expert with regard to safe vessel operation. Captain Wahl has extensive knowledge about the safe [*30] operation of vessels. He obtained this knowledge from his many years of personally operating vessels, obtaining credentials, holding an array of maritime positions, authoring several books, and teaching well over 18,000 students in the subject. The court finds the testimony of Captain Wahl to be credible. Lesniak offered no liability expert at trial.
Captain Wahl testified that as the captain of the Celadon at the time of the incident, good seamanship practices required Lesniak to have the ultimate responsibility to look out for persons aboard his vessel–even if he delegated some of those responsibilities to crew members. Wahl testified that this ultimate responsibility includes providing adequate instructions, warnings, guidance, or lessons to all passengers, including late arriving ones, regarding the potential dangers of movement and position on his vessel and how to avoid those dangers. He also testified that looking out for passengers aboard a vessel includes refraining from performing a gybe maneuver until ensuring that all of the passengers are seated safely out of the path of the boom and its related parts such as the main sheet. Captain Wahl further testified that, even if [*31] a passenger is told verbally to move from a certain spot before a maneuver is performed, it would be a best practice to physically ensure that the person, especially if that person is a novice passenger with no sailing experience, has been moved to a safer place on the sailboat before proceeding to perform the maneuver. It is also Captain Wahl’s opinion that only highly experienced persons should be aboard for racing events, because inexperienced persons may not be able to handle the fast-paced activities normally observed during competitive sailing.
The court finds that Lesniak failed to act as a prudent mariner in failing to: (1) provide adequate posted, written, or verbal warnings to Ray regarding the potential dangers of movement and position on the Celadon and how to avoid those dangers; and (2) in failing to make sure that his passengers were in a safe location at all times, especially before performing a gybe maneuver which causes the boom and its related parts to swing quickly from port to starboard or vice versa. The court finds that these acts and omissions constitute a breach of Rule 5 of the Inland Navigation Rules, the common-law lookout duty, and the general duty of due care [*32] under Admiralty and South Carolina law.
General tort principles require a plaintiff asserting a negligence claim to show that the defendant’s breach of duty proximately caused her injuries. Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. at 451. However, a finding that the defendant breached his duty to maintain a proper lookout imposes upon him the burden of showing by clear and convincing evidence that such failure did not contribute to the accident. Id. This burden shift occurs regardless of whether the breach is viewed as a violation of Rule 5 or as breach of the common-law lookout duty. Id.
The court’s determination that Lesniak breached his duty to keep a proper lookout imposes upon him the burden to show by clear and convincing evidence that his breach of duty did not contribute to the incident. The record here does not support such a showing. Therefore, the court concludes that Lesniak’s negligence caused the main sheet to strike Ray’s head and, therefore, Ray’s resulting injuries.
d. Comparative Negligence
Since jurisdiction is premised upon admiralty, federal common law governs. As such, the doctrine of comparative negligence applies. See, e.g., Mullenix v. United States, 984 F.2d 101, 104 (4th Cir. 1993) (citing United States v. Reliable Transfer Co., 421 U.S. 397, 407, 411, 95 S. Ct. 1708, 44 L. Ed. 2d 251, (1975)). Thus, in the context of an admiralty case, damages should “[b]e allocated [*33] among the parties proportionately to the comparative degree of their fault.” Reliable Transfer Co., Inc. 421 U.S. at 411, 95 S.Ct. 1708.
The court finds that Ray’s recovery should be reduced because Ray shares in the fault attributable as a result of the incident. Lesniak is required to prove the elements of duty, breach, causation, and injury as to Ray’s alleged negligence. Schumacher, 850 F. Supp. at 452 (citing Wilson v. Marshall, 260 S.C. 271, 195 S.E.2d 610, 612 (S.C. 1973)). Namely, an individual has a “duty to exercise due care for one’s own safety.” Id. The court finds that Ray’s conduct contributed to her injuries, and reduces her damages by 25%.
The court finds that Ray was instructed by multiple crew members on multiple occasions on safety protocol, including where to sit. Ray admits that she was aware of potential dangers on the Celadon, and that she was told to “get closer together” and to “get more neighborly” in the moments immediately before the main sheet hit her. Lesniak and all four members of his crew who testified at trial indicated that there was a safety protocol, that Becker, an individual with sixty plus years of sailing experience, and her fellow crew member Truog, were delegated the duty of administering safety instructions and watching out for new, inexperienced passengers. Becker and Truog testified at trial [*34] that these were duties bestowed by their captain, Lesniak, and that they had a present-day recollection of communicating with Ray directly. The court further finds that Ray did not follow the instructions to move. Thus, Ray failed to take responsibility for herself, a duty which is imposed under the law. However, the court considers Ray’s inaction against the backdrop of Captain Wahl’s testimony that Ray as a novice passenger would not know what the safe places were on the boat without being physically guided to those places.
Substantive admiralty law governs all cases brought under federal admiralty jurisdiction; however, it does not automatically displace state law. Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, 116 S. Ct. 619, 133 L. Ed. 2d 578 (1996). If there is no admiralty law on point, the court may look to the laws enacted by the state legislature or declared to be law by the state’s highest courts. Byrd v. Byrd, 657 F.2d 615, 617 (4th Cir. 1981). Accordingly, the court may look to the law of the State of South Carolina in regard to the award of damages arising out of a negligence cause of action in admiralty. Id.
In a personal injury case such as this, the elements of damages potentially recoverable “include past and future medical expenses, past and future pain and suffering, past and future loss [*35] of income and earning power, disfigurement, loss of enjoyment of life, and loss of family services.” Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. at 453 (citing Watson v. Wilkinson Trucking Co., 244 S.C. 217, 136 S.E.2d 286, 291 (S.C. 1964)). Mathematical precision in ascertaining damages is not required. Brooks v. United States, 273 F.Supp. 619, 629 (D.S.C. 1967). Instead, the injured party must be awarded damages sufficiently proportionate to the injuries sustained. Drennan v. Southern Railway, 91 S.C. 507, 75 S.E. 45 (S.C. 1912).
The evidence in this case reveals Ray has suffered and will suffer such past and future damages, and she is entitled to recover for all of them.
a. Past Medical Expenses
Ray seeks to recover certain expenses for her prior medical care. At trial, she submitted a medical bill summary totaling $20,480.70 in prior care. Those expenses are recoverable, as they consist of services such as emergency medical treatment, imaging, physical therapy, psychiatric treatment, and pain management. Those expenses resulted from Lesniak’s negligence and were reasonably necessary. See Sossamon v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 243 S.C. 552, 135 S.E.2d 87, 91 (S.C. 1964). Moreover, the court is satisfied that the invoiced amounts are reasonable. See Haselden v. Davis, 353 S.C. 481, 579 S.E.2d 293, 295 (S.C. 2003) (citation omitted). Therefore, the court awards Ray $20,480.70 in past medical expenses.
b. Future Medical Expenses
Ray seeks damages to cover her anticipated future medical expenses. “[R]ecovery of damages based on future consequences of an injury may be had only if [*36] such consequences are reasonably probable or reasonably certain.” Lohrmann v. Pittsburgh Corning Corp., 782 F.2d 1156, 1160 (4th Cir. 1986). “Reasonably certain” is “a consequence ‘which follows the original act complained of in the usual, ordinary, and experienced course of events.'” Rabb v. Orkin Exterminating Co., 677 F.Supp. 424, 426 (D.S.C. 1987) (quoting Ford v. AAA Highway Express, Inc., 204 S.C. 433, 29 S.E.2d 760, 762 (S.C. 1944)). In other words, damages can be recovered only if there is “[a] greater than 50% chance that a future consequence will occur.” Lohrmann, 782 F.2d at 1160.
Dr. White, the only medical expert offered in this case, testified at trial that Ray’s condition is permanent and will require ongoing future treatment and medication. The court concludes that Ray has established a reasonable certainty that her condition is permanent and will require ongoing future treatment, including seeing a psychiatrist and a neurologist quarterly, and medication, potentially including anti-inflammatories (anti-inflammatory patch), amphetamines or an amphetamine substitute (Nuvigil), a benzodiazepine (Klonopin), a sedative-hypnotic (Belsomra), an anxiolytic (Buspar), and a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (Cymbalta). Dr. White testified that Nuvigil costs approximately $800.00 per month, Cymbalta costs approximately $200.00-300.00 per month, and Belsomra costs approximately $400.00-500.00 per month.
Ray’s birthday [*37] is May 8, 1985. At the time of the incident she was 29 years old. Thus, at the time of the incident, Ray had a life expectancy of 52.53 years, or 630.36 months, under S.C. Code Ann. § 19-1-150.
Adjusted for present value,3 the future medications, frequency, current cost, duration, and present value are as follows:
|Medication||Frequency||Current Cost||Duration||Present Value|
3 Lesniak contends that Ray needs an expert economist on the issue of present value of future damages and needed to present evidence at trial on the calculation of present value discounts. However, he cites no caselaw–and the court is aware of none–that there is a requirement of obtaining expert testimony on the issue of present value of future damages. The court can find no clear requirement in relevant federal case law that plaintiff must present expert evidence of the present value of her claim for future damages. The court draws guidance from the Western District of North Carolina’s recent opinion in Talley v. City of Charlotte, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17604, 2016 WL 1212369, at *2 (W.D.N.C. Feb. 12, 2016), appeal dismissed (Aug. 31, 2016), which observed:
[t]he courts are split on whether it is necessary to introduce expert testimony to explain the concept of discounting an award to present value or to supply suggested discount and inflation rates and/or mathematical calculations. While some courts have permitted, for example, a local banker to testify as to the fair return on a safe investment, or a mathematician an actuary, or an accountant to testify concerning the procedure by which the reduction to present value should be calculated, other courts have held that expert testimony is permitted but not required, and that the jury should generally be left to its own discretion as to what discount factors should be used.
Here, the court calculated the present value discounts employing a discount rate of five percent to damages for future medical care. See Faust v. S.C. State Highway Dep’t, 527 F. Supp. 1021, 1036 (D.S.C. 1981), rev’d on other grounds, 721 F.2d 934 (4th Cir. 1983) (“I find that he is entitled to be properly compensated for his pain, suffering, damages and permanent partial disability, before and after trial, and taking into consideration future pain and suffering and discomfort, and reducing that amount to its present cash value by use of a discount rate of five (5%) percent, which this court feels is reasonable and fair.”).
Future [*38] medication costs are increased at an expected inflation rate for prescription drugs of 3.61 percent, compounded annually.4 The present value of the total future medications that Dr. White opined were reasonable and necessary for Ray’s treatment ranges in cost from $578,100 (using the low figures of the cost of medicine needed) to $660,689 (using the high figures of the cost of medicine needed).5 The court awards the average of the cost of medicine needed, and so awards $619,394.50 for future medical expenses associated with her injuries resulting from the May 21, 2014, incident.
4 This rate is based on inflation rates as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the period 1992-2016.
5 All future medication costs are discounted to present value at a rate of 5 percent, compounded annually. This is a rate that an ordinary person with average financial knowledge, with access to commonly available investment outlets, and facing the full range of financial risks might be expected to earn over a long period of time.
d. Pain and Suffering
Ray’s pain and suffering because of this incident is well documented through her deposition and trial testimony as well as her medical records. She endured months of frequent headaches, nausea, muscle pain, and back pain as a result of her physical injuries. Raven Ray seeks $75,000.00 for past and future pain and suffering. Based on the entire record, the court concludes that $50,000.00 is the appropriate amount of compensation for both past and future pain and suffering. See Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. at 453.
e. Past and Future Emotional Distress
Injured plaintiffs are entitled to recover for mental anguish and permanent emotional [*39] scarring. Steeves v. United States, 294 F. Supp. 446, 458 (D.S.C. 1968). Ray’s severe psychological and emotional injuries because of this incident are well-documented by Houfek. Testimony from Ray and Houfek, in addition to Dr. Kurtzman’s and Dr. Waid’s records, show the extent and severity of Ray’s psychological and emotional injuries proximately caused by Lesniak’s negligence. After a careful review of the entire record, the court finds $75,000.00 for her psychological and emotional injuries reasonable. Therefore, it awards judgment against Lesniak in the amount of $75,000.00 for Ray’s past and future psychological and emotional injuries.
f. Loss of Enjoyment of Life and Permanent Impairment
Next, Ray seeks $100,000.00 as compensation for losing her ability to enjoy the athletic and recreational activities in which she used to participate, as well as her loss of enjoyment of other normal activities of life. Based on the entire record, the court concludes that $100,000.00 is the appropriate amount of compensation for this loss.
Additionally, Ray is permanently impaired due to this traumatic brain injury and must be compensated for her permanent impairment. Ray’s birthday is May 8, 1985. At the time of the incident, she was 29 years old. Thus, [*40] at the time of the incident, Ray had a life expectancy of 52.53 years, or 19,173.45 days, under S.C. Code Ann. § 19-1-150. Finding a valuation of a traumatic brain injury at $20.00 per day to be reasonable, the court awards Ray $383,469.00 for her impairment. In sum, the Court awards Raven Ray $483,469.00 for her loss of enjoyment of life and permanent impairment.
g. Lost Wages/Inconvenience and Disruption of Normal Daily Life
At the time of the incident, Ray was working in the food and beverage industry and attending The Citadel to obtain a graduate degree. Because of her injuries resulting from Lesniak’s negligence, Ray was forced to miss work and experienced difficulty in completing her graduate coursework at The Citadel. The court finds $30,000.00 to be appropriate compensation for Ray’s lost wages and difficulties experienced in completing her graduate coursework at The Citadel. See Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. at 453.
D. Prejudgment Interest
Ray asks the court to add prejudgment interest to her damages. In maritime injury cases, “the awarding of prejudgment interest is the rule rather than the exception, and, in practice, is well-nigh automatic.” U.S. Fire Ins. Co. v. Allied Towing Corp., 966 F.2d 820, 828 (4th Cir. 1992) (citation omitted). The court may decline to award prejudgment interest when it finds that “peculiar [*41] circumstances” would make such relief inequitable. Id. This is an action instituted under the court’s admiralty jurisdiction and no peculiar or exceptional circumstances existed that would prevent Ray from recovering pre-judgment interest. This court, in its discretion, finds no such peculiar circumstances here and finds that Ray is entitled to pre-judgment interest in the amount of $22,952.44 from the date of the accident until the date of this order.
Based on the foregoing, it is ORDERED that judgment be entered for Ray against Lesniak in the sum of nine-hundred and fifty-eight, and seven-hundred and fifty-eight dollars and fifteen cents $958,758.15,6 plus prejudgment interest in the amount of twenty-two thousand, nine-hundred and fifty-two dollars and forty-four cents $22,151.44, and postjudgment interest at the legal rate from the date of this order.
6 The tabulation of damages is $1,278,344.20 before the application of a 25% reduction in proportion to Ray’s comparative negligence. After applying the 25% reduction, the total damages award is $958, 758.15.
AND IT IS SO ORDERED.
/s/ David C. Norton
DAVID C. NORTON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
February 22, 2018
Charleston, South Carolina