Appeals Court Finds Expert Evidence Improperly Excluded in South Florida Cruise Ship Negligence Case

In Sorrels v. NCL (Bahamas) Ltd., a woman was allegedly injured in 2012 when she slipped and fell on a cruise ship deck that was wet from the rain. As a result, the woman and her husband sued the owner of the vessel for damages. In their complaint, the couple accused the cruise company of committing negligence under general maritime law. Under this theory of liability, the owner of a vessel operating on navigable waters owes passengers a duty of reasonable care. In order to demonstrate a cruise ship company committed negligence, an injured plaintiff must demonstrate the company had a duty to protect the plaintiff from a specific injury, the company breached that duty, the breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s harm, and the plaintiff incurred actual damages.

In support of their claim, the plaintiffs offered expert testimony regarding “the degree of slip resistance” on the ship deck. After that, the cruise ship company asked the trial court to strike the expert evidence from the record and issue summary judgment in the company’s favor. The court granted the vessel owner’s motions, and the couple filed an appeal with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the couple argued the trial court committed error when it struck the testimony of their expert witness from the record. The plaintiffs also stated summary judgment was improper because material facts were in dispute. After examining the facts of the case, the appellate court ruled that the district court abused its discretion when it omitted certain expert testimony provided from the record.

According to the Court of Appeals, the trial court improperly held that the expert’s testimony regarding customary safety standards for cruise ships was inapplicable because the standard applied to vessel workers. Since ship decks are traversed by both passengers and employees, the court ruled the industry standard regarding “the degree of slip resistance” was relevant.

The court also held that the lower court improperly applied Rule 403 when it excluded the expert’s testimony. According to the appellate court, the trial court mistakenly determined the probative value of the expert evidence was significantly outweighed by the risk of prejudice to jurors. Because of this, the 11th Circuit ordered the trial court to reexamine whether the expert’s testimony was likely prejudicial on remand.

After holding that the expert’s opinion evidence that lacked a factual foundation was properly excluded by the trial court, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s order granting summary judgment and remanded the cruise ship accident case.

If you or someone you love was hurt while traveling on a cruise ship, you are advised to discuss your rights with a knowledgeable South Florida personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. To speak with a veteran Florida maritime law attorney today, call the caring advocates at Friedman, Rodman & Frank, P.A. at (305) 448-8585 or contact us through our website.

Additional Resources:

Sorrels v. NCL (Bahamas) Ltd., Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit 2015

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