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Goodloe v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd.

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

October 1, 2019




         THIS CAUSE came before the Court upon Defendant, Royal Caribbean Cruises, LTD.'s Rule 50(b) Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law (“JMOL Motion”) [ECF No. 161] and Motion for New Trial or Remittitur (“New Trial Motion”) [ECF No. 160]. The Court has carefully considered the parties' written submissions, [1] the record, and applicable law.


         This case involves claims arising out of the death of cruise ship passenger, Richard J. Puchalski. (See generally Amended Complaint [ECF No. 30]). Plaintiff, Laura Goodloe, is Puchalski's daughter and the appointed personal representative of his Estate.[3] (See id. ¶ 2). Defendant, Royal Caribbean, is a Liberian corporation with its principal place of business in Miami, Florida. (See id. ¶ 4).

         On July 31, 2016, Puchalski was a passenger on Royal Caribbean's vessel, the Explorer of the Seas, which was docked in Juneau, Alaska. (See id. ¶ 8). That morning, Puchalski presented to the vessel's infirmary with shortness of breath. (See id. ¶¶ 9-10). He was evaluated by the vessel's physician, Dr. Amanda Saunders. (See id. ¶ 10). After she performed an EKG, Dr. Saunders prescribed and dispensed medications to Puchalski but did not transfer him to a hospital ashore or perform any further testing or evaluation. (See id.).

         The parties dispute the circumstances surrounding Puchalski's departure from the medical facility. According to Plaintiff, Puchalski was discharged by Dr. Saunders and returned to his cabin relying on her advice. (See id. ¶ 11). In contrast, Defendant asserted the affirmative defense of comparative negligence, arguing Dr. Saunders did not agree with Puchalski leaving the medical facility and that he did so against her advice. (See Trial Tr. Day 4 [ECF No. 176] 91:10-92:8). Although Dr. Saunders' version of events is not corroborated by her contemporaneous medical records, Dr. Saunders stated she informed Defendant of these circumstances during the litigation, in September or October of 2018.[4] (See Saunders' Dep. [ECF No. 84-1] 18:11-12). In any event, Dr. Saunders' version of events was not disclosed to Plaintiff until her deposition, less than two months before the trial.[5]

         In a pretrial motion for sanctions, Plaintiff argued Defendant ambushed her by disclosing surprise testimony regarding Puchalski's comparative negligence. (See generally Mot. for Sanctions). Plaintiff stated Dr. Saunders' testimony that Puchalski left the medical facility against her advice was inconsistent with Defendant's earlier discovery answers and the information provided by Defendant's experts. (See id. ¶¶ 8-10). The Motion was referred to a magistrate judge (see Order [ECF No. 75]), who found sanctions were not justified but that Plaintiff could elicit testimony as to the timing of Defendant's discovery and disclosure to Plaintiff of Dr. Saunders' version of events. (See Judge Goodman's Order [ECF No. 93]).

         Defendant objected to the magistrate judge's Order (see Objections [ECF No. 115]), and at the Pre-Trial Conference argued it would be prejudicial to allow Plaintiff to question Dr. Saunders regarding when she disclosed her recollection to Defendant's counsel because the jury might fault defense counsel for not providing this information to Plaintiff earlier. (See Pretrial Conference Tr. 4:15-11:14). The Court denied Defendant's objections, finding the magistrate judge “was eminently correct in . . . the balance that he struck and in how he resolved this difficult issue.” (Id. 16:7-9 (alteration added)).

         Following the disputed circumstances surrounding his exit from the medical facility, Puchalski returned to his cabin and was joined by his son, Cliff Puchalski. (See id. ¶¶ 11-12). When Puchalski rose to use the restroom, he collapsed. (See id. ¶ 12). Cliff called the vessel's emergency number, and two nurses arrived. (See id.). Puchalski was then transported to the onboard medical center. (See id.). That afternoon, Puchalski was transferred to Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau for further treatment. (See id. ¶¶ 13-14). After assessment, Puchalski was airlifted to an ICU in Anchorage, Alaska. (See id. ¶ 14). Puchalski's condition deteriorated, and he passed away on August 4, 2016. (See id. ¶ 15).

         On March 23, 2018, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit against Royal Caribbean. (See Complaint [ECF No. 1]). The Amended Complaint describes the two claims for relief as: (1) Negligent Medical Care and Treatment Via Employees or Actual Agents and (2) Negligence (Vicarious Liability of Royal Caribbean based Upon Apparent Agency). (See Am. Compl. 4-10).[6]

         In a pretrial Amended Motion to Strike Plaintiff's Experts [ECF No. 48], Defendant argued Plaintiff's expert, Dr. Kim Klancke, lacked the necessary qualifications to testify on the issues. (See id. 6-11). The Court entered an Order [ECF No. 63] denying the Amended Motion as to Dr. Klancke. (See id. 1).

         Also prior to trial, the parties filed trial briefs in support of their respective positions on the applicable wrongful death remedies in this action. (See Trial Briefs [ECF Nos. 130, 138]). At the pre-trial conference, the parties agreed to have the Court to resolve the issue post-trial. (See Pre-Trial Conference Tr. 17:1-24).

         A four-day jury trial concluded on March 7, 2019. (See Trial Transcripts [ECF Nos. 176- 179]). On the second day of the proceedings, Defendant asked the Court for a curative instruction regarding Plaintiff's statements discussing the absence of a Nurse Coatzee. (See Trial Tr. Day 2 296:9-23). The Court declined to issue a curative instruction. (See id. 298:1-3).

         At the close of Plaintiff's case-in-chief, Defendant moved for a directed verdict under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a). (See Trial Tr. Day 3 113:8-22). Once more, Defendant argued Dr. Klancke lacked the qualifications to testify as to the standard of care. (See id.). The Court again denied the motion. (See id. 113:23-25).

         During the proceedings, Defendant moved for a mistrial after Plaintiff briefly showed the jury and attempted to use unadmitted evidence, referred to here as the un-redacted “Providence Record, ” to impeach Defendant's expert. (See id. 217:13-20). After hearing arguments from the parties, the Court denied the motion but provided a curative instruction. (See id. 228:17-20). At the close of the evidence, Defendant renewed its motion for a mistrial on this basis, which the Court again denied. (See id. 251:19-252:20).

         The jury returned a verdict finding Defendant's negligence was a legal cause of damage to Richard J. Puchalski. (See Verdict [ECF No. 152] 1). The jury determined Defendant was responsible for 70 percent of the damages and awarded Plaintiff $265, 000[7] in medical expenses and $4, 800, 000 for loss of companionship and protection and for Plaintiff's past and future pain and suffering. (See id. 2). The Court entered Final Judgment [ECF No. 153] in favor of Plaintiff and against Defendant in the amount of $3, 384, 073.22. (See Final Judgment ¶ 2).

         Defendant now asks the Court for judgment in its favor as a matter of law, or alternatively to grant it a new trial. (See generally JMOL Mot.; New Trial Mot.). If the Court declines to grant either of these forms of relief, Defendant requests the Court reduce the jury's award and limit Plaintiff's recovery through remittitur. (See New Trial Mot. 14-20).

         II. ANALYSIS

         The Court first briefly considers Defendant's JMOL Motion, followed by the New Trial Motion, including the request for a remittitur of the Final Judgment.

         A. JMOL Motion[8]

         The renewed request for judgment as a matter of law is straightforward: Defendant insists the verdict cannot be sustained because Plaintiff presented no evidence from a qualified medical expert on the applicable standard of care. Defendant explains that as a cardiologist, Dr. Klancke lacks the required expertise to testify as an expert in emergency medicine. (See JMOL Mot. 3). According to Defendant, because Plaintiff did not present a qualified medical expert to testify as to the standard of care, breach, or causation, the case should not have gone to the jury and it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law notwithstanding the verdict. (See id. 5-6).

         Defendant's position regarding Plaintiff's expert has been advanced twice before. (See Am. Mot. to Strike Pl.'s Experts 6-11; Trial Tr. Day 3 113:8-22). As explained, the Court denied Defendant's motions each time. (See December 21, 2018 Order 1; Trial Tr. Day 3 113:23-25). Undeterred, Defendant again brings the same argument without raising any issues not previously considered by the Court and without offering any novel or revised legal arguments or authorities. (See generally JMOL Mot.). Indeed, much of the present JMOL Motion is identical to the previous Amended Motion to Strike. (Compare Am. Mot. to Strike Pl.'s Experts 9-11 with JMOL Mot. 3- 5).

         The arguments repeated in the present JMOL Motion are no more persuasive now than they were before. The Court is satisfied with its prior decisions on this issue for the reasons previously articulated and consequently does not address the JMOL Motion further. See Costa v. Sam's E., Inc., No. Civ. A. 11-0297-WS-N, 2012 WL 5386921, at *4 (S.D. Ala. Oct. 31, 2012) (“In the context of [a] Rule 50/Rule 59 Motion, no constructive purpose would be served by the Court reiterating the reasoning and conclusions of [an earlier] Order in detail. . . . Summary disposition of this issue is warranted.” (alterations added; citations omitted)).

         B. New Trial Motion

         A motion for a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) may be granted “for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A). Although a comprehensive list of the grounds for granting a new trial is elusive, the Supreme Court has held that a motion for a new trial may rest on the fact “the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, that the damages are excessive, or that, for other reasons, the trial was not fair to the party moving; and may raise questions of law arising out of alleged substantial errors in admission or rejection of evidence or instructions to the jury.” Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan, 311 U.S. 243, 251 (1940). “[W]hen considering a motion for new trial, the trial judge may weigh the evidence, but it is proper to grant the motion only if the verdict is against the great, not just the greater, weight of the evidence.” Ard v. Sw. Forest Indus., 849 F.2d 517, 520 (11th Cir. 1988) (citing Watts v. Great Atl. & Pac. Tea Co., Inc., 842 F.2d 307, 310 (11th Cir. 1988) (alteration added)).

         In its New Trial Motion, Defendant asserts: (1) the Court's rulings allowed Plaintiff to build the improper and prejudicial theme at trial that Royal Caribbean was hiding the truth from the jury (see New Trial Mot. 2-13); (2) Dr. Klancke lacked the qualifications to testify as an expert on the standard of care (see id. 13-14); and (3) if a new trial is not granted, the Court should at least order remittitur (see id. 14-20). The Court addresses each argument in turn.

         1. Improper and Prejudicial Themes at Trial

         Defendant argues “various pretrial and trial rulings allowed Plaintiff's counsel to build the powerful but improper theme at trial that [Royal Caribbean] and its counsel was [sic] keeping the truth from the jury.” (Id. 2 (alterations added)). The specific events complained about are: (a) Plaintiff publishing to the jury prejudicial evidence the parties agreed was inadmissible -- the un-redacted Providence Record -- and then pouncing upon it in closing argument (see id. 2-10); (b) Plaintiff improperly commenting on Defendant's decision not to call witnesses (see id. 10-11); and (c) addressing when Dr. Saunders first informed counsel about Puchalski leaving the medical facility against medical advice (see id. 11-13).

         a) Inadmissible Evidence Published to the Jury

         Defendant's argument regarding inadmissible evidence coming before the jury involves Plaintiff showing the jury the un-redacted Providence Record, a medical record from the Providence Alaska Medical Center. According to Defendant, the parties agreed before trial the Providence Record contained inadmissible speculation regarding the cause of Puchalski's death. (See id. 2). Nevertheless, Plaintiff proceeded to show the un-redacted portion of the Record to the jury, and Defendant objected and moved for a mistrial. The Court denied the requested mistrial but provided a curative instruction. (See New Trial Mot. 3 (citations omitted)).

         Defendant insists its “core defense” was that the medications prescribed and administered aboard the vessel were proper. (Id.). The speculation of a non-testifying, third-party who was not subject to cross-examination purportedly undermined its defense by allowing the jury to believe the shipboard physician committed malpractice by administering inappropriate medications. (See id.). Defendant states “the extremely prejudicial nature of this surprise evidence cannot be disputed, particularly as Plaintiff agreed to its redaction from the exhibit pretrial.” (Id.).

         In addition to Plaintiff's publication of the un-redacted Providence Record, Defendant accuses Plaintiff's counsel of seizing upon the Court's ruling about his wrongful disclosure to Defendant's detriment in rebuttal closing argument. (See New Trial Mot. 7 (alteration added)). Defendant argues Plaintiff's counsel used the redacted record to imply “he had been precluded by the redaction from bringing such evidence to the jury that would be helpful to Plaintiff.” (Id. 8). Defendant emphasizes the following statements as unfairly prejudicial:

[Plaintiff's counsel]: Well, we can't show any document at all that shows the final cause because it's the [sic] against the Rules of Evidence.
[Plaintiff's counsel]: You are going to get every medical report back there, and you are going to see that there's [sic] parts in it [sic] that are redacted.
[Plaintiff's counsel]: We can't get into what it says one way or another, but as far as our ability to show you anything about a determined cause, there is no way for us to do that.

(New Trial Mot. 8-9 (alterations added; citations and emphasis omitted)). Defendant insists these statements made it clear to the jury Plaintiff sought to present that evidence, but the Court's ruling -- at Defendant's request -- prevented Plaintiff from doing so. (See id. 9).

         According to the Plaintiff, the Record was perfectly admissible; it simply had not yet been admitted. (See New Trial Resp. 3). Plaintiff states her “pretrial acquiescence” to Defendant's requested redactions did not make an otherwise admissible exhibit inadmissible. (See id.). Plaintiff describes as proper the use of the un-redacted Providence Record given Defendant tried to bolster its expert's opinion with Providence Hospital records. (See id. 4). Plaintiff provides the following exchange between Royal Caribbean and its expert by way of example:

Q. Was there anything in the record from Bartlett or Providence that would change your opinions in this particular case.
A. No, it didn't change my opinion, actually it confirmed my opinion because I think you've probably seen that the Bartlett physicians and then the Providence physicians all said, we do not know what caused this PEA. And that's expected.

(Id. (citation and emphasis omitted)). Plaintiff states the portions redacted from the Providence Record did not support the witness's opinion, and Defendant exposed the witness to impeachment under Federal Rule of Evidence 705, which permits otherwise inadmissible evidence upon which an expert has relied to be used to impeach the expert's opinion. (See id.).

         Plaintiff also notes the Court provided a curative instruction, and the instruction is presumed to be effective. (See id. 8). The Court was willing to provide a second curative instruction, but Defendant withdrew the request for one. (See id.). Plaintiff argues the un-redacted Providence Record is substantially similar ...

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