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Caron v. NCL (Bahamas) Ltd.

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

November 3, 2017

Olivier Caron, Plaintiff,
NCL (Bahamas) Ltd. dba Norwegian Cruise Line, Defendant.


          Robert N. Scola, Jr. United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Olivier Caron, then 22 years old, was traveling as a passenger on a Baltic cruise aboard Defendant Norwegian Cruise Line's vessel, the Star. On the second day of the trip, Caron paid extra to purchase an all-inclusive drink package which allowed him unlimited beer and wine while on the cruise. After drinking beers at several different bars that evening, Caron first entered an area that was clearly marked with two signs: “CREW ONLY” and “RESTRICTED, CREW ACCESS ONLY.” Two minutes later he opened an emergency-escape door with a red colored sign labeled “CAUTION only authorized crew beyond this sign.” Upon going past that door, he fell several feet, through a hatch intended to serve as an emergency exit from the bow-thruster room below. Shortly after Caron emerged from the escape hatch, some four-and-a-half hours after his fall, he filled out a statement form presented to him by Norwegian. In response to the question, “Who [sic] do you blame the incident on?” Caron marked the box associated with “Myself.”[1] (Stmt. Form Ex., ECF No. 123-1). Despite this acknowledgment, Caron nonetheless seeks to recover damages from Norwegian, submitting that Norwegian's negligence caused the injuries he sustained in the fall. Norwegian counters that the Court should grant summary judgment in its favor because: (1) Caron cannot show that the escape-hatch area was dangerous; (2) and, even if he could, Norwegian had no notice of the danger; and (3) Norwegian acted reasonably under the circumstances. (Def.'s Mot. for Summ. Judgment, ECF No. 125.) Because the Court finds Caron has not set forth sufficient facts upon which a reasonable fact finder could find on his behalf, the Court grants Norwegian's motion (ECF No. 125).

         1. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is proper if following discovery, the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, affidavits and admissions on file show there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. “An issue of fact is ‘material' if, under the applicable substantive law, it might affect the outcome of the case.” Hickson Corp. v. N. Crossarm Co., 357 F.3d 1256, 1259-60 (11th Cir. 2004). “An issue of fact is ‘genuine' if the record taken as a whole could lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party.” Id. at 1260. All the evidence and factual inferences reasonably drawn from the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); Jackson v. BellSouth Telecomms., 372 F.3d 1250, 1280 (11th Cir. 2004). “If more than one inference could be construed from the facts by a reasonable fact finder, and that inference introduces a genuine issue of material fact, then the district court should not grant summary judgment.” Bannum, Inc. v. City of Fort Lauderdale, 901 F.2d 989, 996 (11th Cir. 1990).

         Once a party properly makes a summary judgment motion by demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, whether or not accompanied by affidavits, the nonmoving party must go beyond the pleadings through the use of affidavits, documents, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions, or other materials, and designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323-24; Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). The nonmovant's evidence must be significantly probative to support the claims. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). The Court will not weigh the evidence or make findings of fact. Id. at 249; Morrison v. Amway Corp., 323 F.3d 920, 924 (11th Cir. 2003). Rather, the Court's role is limited to deciding whether there is sufficient evidence upon which a reasonable juror could find for the nonmoving party. Morrison, 323 F.3d at 924.

         2. Factual Background[2] and Caron's claims

         After an evening of drinking with fellow passengers, Caron was intoxicated to the point that he felt “completely disoriented.” (Pl.'s Stmt. of Undisputed Mat. Facts, ¶¶ 32-39, ECF No. 281, 5-6.)[3] At some point, Caron wanted to go back to his room but, it appears, he got lost and ended up in one of the ship's crew areas instead. (Id. at ¶ 37.) The door Caron opened and walked through to get from the passenger to the crew area of the ship was clearly marked: “CREW ONLY”; “PASSENGERS USE IN CASE OF EMERGENCY ONLY”; “RESTRICTED”; “CREW ACCESS ONLY.” (Def.'s Stmt. of Undisputed Facts, ¶ 3, ECF No. 125, 2; Door 1 Ex., ECF No. 114.) After entering the crew area, Caron proceeded down a hallway, or series of hallways, ultimately reaching another door which led directly into an escape hatch. (Def.'s Stmt. at ¶ 4; Door 2 Ex., ECF No. 115.) This door was also marked: “Emergency Exit”; “Do not obstruct”; “FIRE DOOR”; “KEEP CLOSED”; “CAUTION”; “Only authorized crew beyond this sign.” (Def.'s Stmt. at ¶ 5; Door 2 Ex.) This door also had a square green sign on it, with white lettering, apparently identifying the door as “2 S.” (Id.) There is some indication that there was supposed to be, or was, a chain across the doorway. However, Norwegian's corporate representative, Brett Berman, testified only that “as a matter of course, [the chain] is always in position, unless it's being used.” (Brett Berman Dep. 339:18-340:16, ECF No. 113-1, 366-67.) And although the representative testified that “[t]he chain was across the doorway” he did not have any personal knowledge that it was actually there. (Id.) Caron testified that he did not remember a chain being there. (Olivier Caron Dep. 112:7-10, ECF No. 119-2, 112.) In any event, whether the chain was there or not, after opening and then proceeding through the marked doorway, Caron fell through the opening in the floor, directly in front of the doorway, hitting the deck below. About four-and-a-half hours later, Caron emerged, injured, from the hatch and was thereafter attended to by crewmembers and Norwegian's medical staff. (Supp. Attachment, Video 8, ECF No. 130.)

         In his amended complaint, Caron lists twenty-one separate ways in which he alleges Norwegian was negligent. (Am. Compl., ECF No. 15.) Most of them relate to the alleged dangerousness of the emergency hatch itself (which the complaint describes as an “open manhole”) as well as other “holes, areas, crevices, floors, walkways, and/or thresholds” on the ship. According to Caron, these areas were unsafe for a litany of reasons. For example, he says they were not properly inspected, cleaned, maintained, lighted, designed, protected, or covered. The complaint also alleges that Norwegian was negligent in allowing access to the area where he fell and failing to properly warn of the area's hidden dangers.

         3. Discussion

         Federal maritime law governs the substantive issues in this case. Everett v. Carnival Cruise Lines, 912 F.2d 1355, 1358 (11th Cir. 1990). In order to satisfy his burden of proof in this negligence action, Caron must show: (1) Norwegian had a duty to protect him from a particular injury; (2) Norwegian breached that duty; (3) the breach was the proximate cause of his injuries; and (4) he suffered damages. Chaparro v. Carnival Corp., 693 F.3d 1333, 1336 (11th Cir. 2012); Hasenfus v. Secord, 962 F.2d 1556, 1559-60 (11th Cir. 1992). “Each element is essential to Plaintiff's negligence claim and Plaintiff cannot rest on the allegations of [his] complaint in making a sufficient showing on each element for the purposes of defeating summary judgment.” Isbell v. Carnival Corp., 462 F.Supp.2d 1232, 1236-37 (S.D. Fla. 2006) (Moreno, J.). “Regarding the breach element, ” in a negligence claim, “the benchmark against which a shipowner's behavior must be measured is ordinary reasonable care under the circumstances, a standard which requires, as a prerequisite to imposing liability, that the carrier have had actual or constructive notice of the risk-creating condition.” Frasca v. NCL (Bahamas), Ltd., 654 F. App'x 949, 952 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting Keefe v. Bahama Cruise Line, Inc., 867 F.2d 1318, 1322 (11th Cir. 1989)). Lastly, it should be noted that general maritime law is “an amalgam of traditional common-law rules, modifications of those rules, and newly created rules.” See East River Steamship Corp. v. Transamerica Delaval, Inc., 476 U.S. 858, 864-65 (1986); see also Brockington v. Certified Elec., Inc., 903 F.2d 1523, 1530 (11th Cir.1990). Thus, “[i]n the absence of well-developed maritime law pertaining to [a plaintiff's] negligence claims, [a court] will incorporate general common law principles and Florida state law to the extent they do not conflict with federal maritime law.” Holderbaum v. Carnival Corp., 87 F.Supp.3d 1345, 1349 (S.D. Fla. 2015) (internal quotations omitted) (Lenard, J.)

         A. Caron has not presented any genuine issue of material fact showing that the emergency escape hatch presented a danger to passengers.

         As a threshold issue, a plaintiff must establish that a dangerous condition existed. However, “[t]he mere fact that an accident occurs does not give rise to a presumption that the setting of the accident constituted a dangerous condition.” Reinhardt v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., No. 1:12-CV-22105-UU, 2013 WL 11261341, at *5 (S.D. Fla. Apr. 2, 2013) (Ungaro, J.).

         In his attempt to establish that the hole in the floor just behind the escape-hatch door posed a danger, Caron focuses on the lack of locking mechanisms on the doors that led to both the crew area generally as well as the hatch itself. He submits that it was unreasonable for Norwegian not to have locks on those doors and its failure to have them rendered the escape-hatch area dangerous. However, Caron did not present any evidence that not having a lock on the doors, which were covered in signs warning passengers to stay out, was unreasonable. Instead, Caron's expert, Richard J. Ferraro merely explained that, for example, “the door [to the escape hatch] could have been provided with a locking mechanism that could have prevented access from the corridor but still allowed escape in the designed direction of escape.” (Richard J. Ferraro Dep., [4] ECF No. 235-1, 5, 9 (emphasis added).) The expert's opinion that “a better way of dealing with places . . . where you can be injured, ” other than posting signs, “is to have the door locked” does not establish that, by not having the locks, Norwegian necessarily acted unreasonably. (Ferraro Dep. 81:9-11; 82:25-83:5 (“[T]here's no specific requirement to lock spaces, such as this. . . . But there's good reason to. And based on the regulations, one would think that would be the way to go.”); 174:23-21 (in opining the door should have been locked, noting that “[m]ost hazardous spaces, if not all on a ship, are locked”).) One can likely imagine any number of ways to more effectively protect passengers from their own carelessness and recklessness. For example, each passenger could be assigned his or her own chaperone. Or armed guards could be posted at each crew-area access point. Or maybe the signs could have been bigger, more colorful, or included pictures depicting holes in the floor. That Norwegian didn't have these things, and that one might argue these would be “better” ways of ensuring passenger safety, does not alone lead one inexorably to the conclusion that the escape hatch from the bow-thruster room, located entirely within the crew-only area, unreasonably exposed Norwegian's passengers to danger.

         Further, to the extent Caron claims Norwegian breached its own internal, or other, standards by not locking the doors to the passenger area or the escape hatch, supporting evidence is lacking. That Erwin Castro, an assistant carpenter for Norwegian, stated in his deposition that he believes emergency hatches on the ship are generally locked, preventing access from the corridor, is insufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Norwegian in fact has such a policy. (Erwin Castro Dep. 21:15-20, ECF No. 121-1, 22.) Additionally, Norwegian's corporate representative himself testified that it is not necessary to have a lock on the escape-hatch door. (Berman Dep. at 79:10-14.) Similarly, Caron's expert's inference that the crewmembers who were searching for Caron assumed the door was locked because they did not try to open the door to the hatch to look for him is equally unsupportive. (Ferraro Dep. 182:23-183:4.) Neither piece of evidence is significantly probative of whether Norwegian has a policy of making sure the escape-hatch doors are locked and inaccessible from the corridor. Further, Caron's prediction that his expert intends to testify that having locks on such doors is a recognized cruise-industry standard is unsupported by the record and ...

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