In personal injury law, you often come across the phrase “actual or constructive notice.” This refers to a property owner’s knowledge with respect to a given hazard. Actual notice means the owner knew the hazard existed. Constructive notice, on the other hand, means the owner “should have known” there was a hazard based on the exercise of reasonable care.
Lebron v. Royal Caribbean Cruises LTD
It is critical for a plaintiff in any personal injury case to establish the existence of either actual or constructive notice. Without such proof, a court will dismiss the plaintiff’s claims. At the same time, judges need to be careful to not dismiss a valid lawsuit based on an incorrect interpretation of the evidence.
Take this recent decision from the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals here in Atlanta, Lebron v. Royal Caribbean Cruises LTD. This personal injury case involved an accident that occurred on a cruise ship. The plaintiff was ice skating with his daughters on Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas ship when he fell and broke three ankle bones.
In his subsequent lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged Royal Caribbean was negligent in maintaining the ice rink, which caused several “gouges” in the ice to form that contributed to his fall. He also alleged Royal Caribbean provided him with a defective ice skate that did not lace properly. The case proceeded to a jury trial in Florida, applying federal maritime law. The jury ultimately allocated fault for the accident as follows: 65% to Royal Caribbean, and 35% to the plaintiff.
However, the trial judge overruled the jury’s verdict and entered judgment for Royal Caribbean. The judge said the plaintiff could not prove that Royal Caribbean had either actual or constructive notice of the gouges in the ice. On appeal, the 11th Circuit said it was the trial judge who erred and reinstated the jury’s original verdict.
The appeals court noted that at trial, the plaintiff’s daughter testified that she noticed the gouges in the ice at least 10 to 15 minutes before her father’s accident. For its part, Royal Caribbean admitted that it had several employees stationed at the ice rink during this time, and one of them was specifically tasked with “watching the ice” for unsafe conditions. Nevertheless, Royal Caribbean insisted that it lacked actual or constructive notice of the gouges, as they “did not exist for a sufficient period of time to allow for corrective action.”
But the 11th Circuit said the jury could conclude that the 10-15 minute time frame specified by the daughter was “more than sufficient” for a trained Royal Caribbean employee to notice the gouges. Indeed, the fact that the daughter, an “inexperienced skater,” saw the gouges only emphasized this point. At the very least, it was enough to establish that Royal Caribbean had “constructive notice” of the hazard and failed to act in a timely manner to protect the plaintiff from injury.