Thousands of Georgia residents take vacation cruises every year. You might wonder what happens if someone is seriously injured while at sea on such a cruise. For example, what legal standards apply when determining a ship operator’s negligence?
In a typical premises liability case—say, a slip and fall in a supermarket—the law of the state where the accident occurs govern any subsequent lawsuit. When a similar accident happens at sea, federal maritime law (sometimes called admiralty law) applies. In the United States, maritime law holds a ship owner owes a “duty of reasonable care” to protect its passengers from injury.
Sorrels v. NCL (Bahamas) Ltd.
Recently a federal appeals court in Atlanta held a woman injured in a slip-and-fall on a Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) ship could proceed with her lawsuit against the company. The woman claimed she fractured her wrist after falling on the ship’s pool deck. The pool deck was wet due to rain earlier in the day. She subsequently sued NCL, alleging it “created a dangerous condition by failing to properly maintain the pool deck.”
Before the trial court, the plaintiff presented testimony from an expert witness who reviewed the “coefficient of friction” (COF) on the pool deck. The COF essentially measures “the degree of slip resistance” on a given surface. Here, the plaintiff’s expert determined the pool deck’s COF was “below minimum standard values that have long been accepted as required in order to classify a walkway surface as slip-resistant.” The expert further stated NCL should have known of the risk to passengers given prior accidents on the same pool deck.
The trial judge ruled the expert’s testimony inadmissible and granted summary judgment to NCL. First, the judge said the expert’s opinion that the pool deck failed to meet industry standards was unreliable, because those standards do not apply to cruise-ship passenger decks, only areas where crew members work. Second, the judge said the expert performed his COF tests on the pool deck “nearly a year and a half after the accident,” which did not mirror the conditions of the plaintiff’s fall. Finally, the judge rejected the expert’s view the uneven COF on the pool deck “will trap individuals via a false sense of security.”
On appeal, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals said the trial judge abused his discretion to his first two findings. On the first point, the appeals court said it made no sense to apply two different standards to the same pool deck. In other words, both crew members and passengers travel throughout the ship; therefore the same COF standards should apply.
With respect to whether the expert’s test mirrored the conditions of the plaintiff’s accident, the appeals court said the evidence “was contrary to the district court’s finding.” Indeed, NCL acknowledged the pool deck was substantially the same as was at the time of the accident. And the appeals court said any “delay in viewing or inspecting the place where an accident took place normally goes to weight and not to admissibility.” So the expert can offer opinions to a jury based on his tests.
The 11th Circuit did not address the merits of the lawsuit. It only held the expert’s testimony was partially admissible, and as such, the trial court must now determine whether that evidence would allow a jury to conclude NCL “created a dangerous condition” on the pool deck.