Cruise Ship in the seaIn a recent case, Plaintiff sued a Cruise Line after sustaining head injury while swimming in a pool aboard a cruise ship.  The plaintiff did not have a cruise expert witness for his case to testify on the standard of care for pool maintenance of a cruise ship.  Plaintiff appealed for summary judgment in a maritime tort action against the Defendant’s Cruise Line.

The U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit, in a per curiam decision, held that without an cruise ship expert to rebut evidence presented by ship operator’s expert, the passenger couldn’t make a prima facie case of ship operator’s failure to maintain the pool.

Plaintiff filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida alleging that Defendant was negligent in its maintenance and operation of the swimming pool on the ship and that it failed to warn him of the dangers associated with use of the pool. Defendant moved for summary judgment on all of Plaintiff’s claims. It argued, inter alia, that: it had no duty to warn Plaintiff of any dangers that were open and obvious; the design, operation, and maintenance of the pool (including the pool’s water quality) was in compliance with national standards; Defendant couldn’t be held responsible for the design of the pool; and Plaintiff was the sole cause of his accident.

Plaintiff responded to the motion and relied heavily on the affidavit of his intended expert at trial but Defendant moved to strike the expert, arguing that his opinions and testimony didn’t meet the legal standard required by Daubert. The district court granted Defendant’s motion to strike the expert. Plaintiff moved to reconsider that order but the district court denied the motion. At that point, Defendant moved for reconsideration of the earlier order denying summary judgment in light of the exclusion of Plaintiff’s expert witness. The district court granted Defendant’s motion for reconsideration and summary judgment.

Plaintiff appealed and argued that both the grant of summary judgment and the grant of Defendant’s reconsideration motion were in error.

The Court of Appeals noted that federal maritime law applies to actions arising from alleged torts committed aboard a ship sailing in navigable waters. When neither statutory nor judicially created maritime principles provide an answer to a specific legal question, federal courts may apply state law provided that the application of state law doesn’t frustrate national interests in having uniformity in admiralty law.

Maritime law holds that a shipowner owes a duty of exercising reasonable care towards those lawfully aboard the vessel who aren’t crew members. The Eleventh Circuit has regularly applied this reasonable care standard in maritime tort cases alleging negligence. Its case law is clear in stating that “[a] carrier by sea … is not liable to passengers as an insurer, but only for its negligence.”

The Eleventh Circuit relied on general principles of negligence law. As such Plaintiff needs to show that: Defendant had a duty to protect Plaintiff from the injury; Defendant breached that duty; the breach actually and proximately caused Plaintiff’s injury; and Plaintiff suffered actual harm.

The ordinary-reasonable-care-under-the-circumstances standard the Court of Appeals applied, as a prerequisite to imposing liability, requires that the shipowner have had actual or constructive notice of the risk-creating condition. At least that was the case where, as it was here with the pool, the risk was one just as commonly encountered on land (or, in a pool built on land) and not “clearly linked to nautical adventure.” However, federal courts should not even reach the defendant’s actual or constructive notice of a risk-creating condition if they find that condition was an open and obvious danger. The duty to warn in the maritime tort context extends to only known dangers which are not apparent and obvious.

In this case, the risk-creating condition—the alleged cloudiness of the pool water—was open and obvious to Plaintiff by his own account. Defendant didn’t breach its duty of reasonable care by failing to warn him of a condition of which Plaintiff, or a reasonable person in his position, would be aware.

Plaintiff dove in again and argued that even if an open and obvious condition precludes any failure-to-warn claim, Defendant still had an obligation to reasonably maintain the pool. However, Defendant presented substantial evidence that it did this. Defendant’s expert testified that the protocols followed on the cruise ship conformed to national standards and industry practices.

Unfortunately for Plaintiff was that without his own expert, he couldn’t rebut this evidence to make a prima facie case that Defendant failed to maintain the pool. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s order granting Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

By: Kurt R. Mattson, LLM, J.D.
20+ years of legal experience