In the 11th Circuit, a per curiam decision from a panel of circuit judges found that in the absence of any evidence from which the jury could have eliminated other equally probable causes of the plaintiff’s injuries, the district court correctly determined that she wasn’t entitled to rely on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to sustain her negligence claim. At issue was the sufficiency of Plaintiff’s expert report from an expert in overhead and stage lighting to overcome summary judgment.
Plaintiff asked the Eleventh Circuit to reconsider the district court’s decision granting summary judgment to the cruise line. In her lawsuit, Plaintiff alleged that the cruise operator had been negligent in maintaining a lighting machine above the dance floor on a cruise ship and, as a result of that negligence, part of the machine had fallen and struck her on the head. She had her first-ever migraine headache soon after she was struck by the lighting, and she has continued to experience frequent, intense migraine headaches ever since.
The lighting machines flash colored light and contain a rotating oval mirror used to reflect light for a disco ball-like effect. A metal bracket is affixed to the back of the oval mirror; that bracket is attached by two three-millimeter bolts to a rotating shaft below the motor.
According to its user manual, the lighting “requires regular maintenance to keep performing at [its] peak.” The manual prescribed no set maintenance schedule, instead noting that the machine’s “maintenance schedule will depend on the application and should be discussed with your […] distributor.” The only warning in the manual was that “[e]xcessive dust, grease, and smoke fluid buildup degrades performance and causes overheating and damage that is not covered by the warranty.” As for the mirror, bolts, bracket, and shaft, the manual noted only that “[n]o adjustment is required” once the mirror is installed “as long as you do not loosen the tilt motor shaft adaptor.”
As part of its regular maintenance, the cruise line employed sound and light technicians to regularly clean and inspect the lighting machines. Those technicians were required to report in maintenance logs “anything wrong” or anything that “need[ed] maintenance” on the lighting machines. The maintenance logs reflected that the lighting machines were inspected and cleaned less than two months before Plaintiff‘s incident. No issues with the lighting machines were documented at that time or at any other occasion.
During discovery, Plaintiff produced an expert in overhead and stage lighting who offered his “professional recommendation” that the lighting machines should be inspected quarterly and that those inspections should follow a detailed checklist. The lighting expert relied on, inter alia, the American National Standards Institute’s industry guidelines for mounting and inspecting overhead equipment. The guidelines recommended that owners determine how regularly and thoroughly to inspect their equipment based on the equipment’s usage and environment but did not address the frequency or comprehensiveness of inspections. He opined that the lighting machine’s mirror had fallen because the bolts connecting the bracket to the shaft “more likely than not loosened over time.” He concluded that the cruise line failed to perform quarterly inspections and that it was “[m]ore like[ly] than not [that the cruise line] should have known that the mirror was coming loose and more likely than not [that] the failure to properly inspect and maintain caused the mirror to detach and fall on” Plaintiff‘s head.
The cruise line filed a motion for summary judgment, and Plaintiff offered her expert’s report in response. The district court granted the motion. The district court ruled that there was “no evidence . . . establishing that [the cruise line] was on notice of the alleged dangerous condition posed by the mirror or the [lighting] machine.” Without evidence of similar incidents, the court reasoned, the cruise line had no duty to its passengers and was entitled to summary judgment. Further, Plaintiff couldn’t rely on the evidentiary doctrine of res ipsa loquitur because the record supported competing reasonable inferences about what caused the mirror on the lighting machine to fall.
Plaintiff challenged the district court’s determination that she failed to make the requisite showing to avail herself of the evidentiary doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to prove that the cruise line was negligent.
The Eleventh Circuit wrote that res ipsa loquitur is an evidentiary doctrine that permits an inference of negligence when the facts warrant, but do not compel, that inference. In maritime law, the plaintiff is not entitled to rely on the res ipsa loquitur doctrine unless she can show three elements: (1) the injured party was without fault, (2) the instrumentality causing the injury was under the exclusive control of the defendant, and (3) the mishap is of a type that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence. In carrying her burden under the third prong, the Court said that a plaintiff “must demonstrate the absence of equally probable alternative causes for her injury,” citing an earlier Tenth Circuit decision that quoted the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 328D cmt. f .
Plaintiff failed to proffer any evidence that showed that her injury ordinarily would not have occurred without negligence by the cruise line. The record supported at least two other equally probable causes of Plaintiff‘s injury besides the cruise line‘s negligence: (i) the lighting machine’s mirror might have fallen due to a design defect, given that no adjustment was required to the mirror after installation, the lighting machines were inspected fewer than two months before the incident, and Cruise Line had no prior problems with the lighting machines; and (ii) the lighting machine’s mirror might have fallen because the bolts connecting the bracket to the shaft had loosened undetectably.
Plaintiff‘s expert opined that the bolts might have loosened due to “sound vibration[s]” in the night club. The maintenance logs showed that the cruise line had cleaned and inspected lighting machines two months before the incident. However, there was no indication that the technicians observed any loose bolts. Because of these equally probable inferences about the cause of the injury, the Eleventh Circuit said the district court correctly determined that Plaintiff couldn’t proceed on a res ipsa loquitur theory of negligence.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the district court granting summary judgment to the cruise line.