United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division
ORDER AND OPINION
Richard Mark Gergel United States District Court Judge
matter is before the Court on Defendant's first motion
for summary judgment, which argues there is no evidence
Defendant was negligent and no evidence supporting punitive
damages, and Defendant's second motion for summary
judgment, which argues the negligence complained of did not
cause Plaintiffs transverse myelitis. For the reasons set
forth below, the Court grants in part and denies in part
Defendant's first motion for summary judgment, and denies
Defendant's second motion for summary judgment.
17, 2014, Plaintiff was injured during a "buddy"
fishing trip while on a boat owned and operated by Defendant.
There is no allegation Plaintiff was a passenger for hire.
Plaintiff alleges the injury occurred when Defendant
activated the electric windlass while Plaintiff was assisting
with the anchor, causing a crush injury to Plaintiffs right
ring finger. Allegedly, the anchor was stuck on the ocean
floor. Plaintiff was manually pulling on the anchor line to
free the anchor while Defendant toggled the windlass on and
off. When the anchor was freed, the anchor line moved
abruptly. As a result, Plaintiff lost his balance. As he
attempted to brace himself, his hand landed on the windlass
and his finger was caught by the anchor line. To treat the
injury, Plaintiff received a TD AP vaccination and surgery to
repair the finger. Plaintiff alleges that after the initial
treatment, his health drastically declined and that he was
diagnosed with transverse myelitis.
filed this action in admiralty on August 24, 2016, asserting
a claim for negligence and seeking actual and punitive
damages. Defendant moved for summary judgment on July 31,
2017. Defendant filed two motions for summary judgment. In
the first motion, Defendant argues he was not negligent
because there is no genuine dispute that the windlass was an
open and obvious danger. He also argues that there is no
genuine dispute of material fact supporting a claim for
punitive damages. In the second motion, Defendant argues
there is no evidence Defendant's actions proximately
caused Plaintiffs transverse myelitis.
judgment is appropriate if a party "shows that there is
no genuine dispute as to any material fact" and that the
movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In other words, summary judgment should
be granted "only when it is clear that there is no
dispute concerning either the facts of the controversy or the
inferences to be drawn from those facts." Pulliam
Inv. Co. v. Cameo Props., 810 F.2d 1282, 1286 (4th Cir.
1987). "In determining whether a genuine issue has been
raised, the court must construe all inferences and
ambiguities in favor of the nonmoving party."
HealthSouth Rehab. Hosp. v. Am. Natl Red Cross, 101
F.3d 1005, 1008 (4th Cir. 1996). The party seeking summary
judgment shoulders the initial burden of demonstrating to the
court that there is no genuine issue of material fact.
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).
the moving party has made this threshold demonstration, the
non-moving party, to survive the motion for summary judgment,
may not rest on the allegations averred in his pleadings.
Id. at 324. Rather, the non-moving party must
demonstrate that specific, material facts exist that give
rise to a genuine issue. Id. Under this standard,
"[c]onclusory or speculative allegations do not suffice,
nor does a 'mere scintilla of evidence'" in
support of the non-moving party's case. Thompson v.
Potomac Elec. Power Co., 312 F.3d 645, 649 (4th Cir.
2002) (quoting Phillips v. CSXTransp., Inc., 190
F.3d 285, 287 (4th Cir. 1999)).
Open and obvious danger
injury negligence actions arising from navigation on the open
ocean are within the admiralty jurisdiction of this Court.
See Schumacher v. Cooper, 850 F.Supp. 438, 447
(D.S.C. 1994). Cases involving a tort committed on navigable
water are governed by admiralty law. Byrd v. Byrd,
657 F.2d 615, 617 (4th Cir. 1981). If there is no admiralty
rule on point, admiralty law looks to state law to supply the
rule of decision. Id. at 617. "This rule is
especially true in negligence causes of action."
Schumacher, 850 F.Supp. 447. In the present case,
"[t]o recover for his injuries, Plaintiff must prove
that Defendant was negligent in the operation of his
boat"- specifically, the operation of the windlass.
Id. "The elements of negligence that must be
established are a duty, a breach of that duty, proximate
cause, and resulting injury." Id. Regarding the
element of duty, "[i]t is a settled principle of
maritime law that a shipowner owes the duty of exercising
reasonable care towards those lawfully aboard the vessel who
are not members of the crew." Kermarec v. Compagnie
Generale, 358 U.S. 625, 630 (1959). "The duty of
ordinary care includes, of course, a duty to warn of harm
that is reasonably foreseeable under the circumstances."
Bubla v. Bradshaw, 795 F.2d 349, 353 (4th Cir.
proposes a different standard, pointing out that Defendant
"admits and concedes that it was Defendant's job,
duty, and responsibility to return Plaintiff to shore
safely." (Dkt. No. 41 at 6.) The legal standard a lay
witness admits to in a deposition is neither controlling nor
persuasive. Federal admiralty law provides "a shipowner
is not an insurer of its passengers' safety."
Monteleone v. Bahama Cruise Line, Inc., 838 F.2d 63,
65 (2d Cir. 1988). It was not Defendant's duty to return
Plaintiff to shore safely. It was Defendant's duty to
exercise reasonable care under the circumstances.
Kermarec, 358 U.S. at 630.
first motion for summary judgments asserts there is no
evidence Defendant breached the duty of ordinary care because
the windlass was an open and obvious danger. Under admiralty
law, a vessel owner has a duty to warn passengers about only
latent dangers. Marin v. Myers, 665 F.2d 57, 58 (4th
Cir. 1981). But even assuming, arguendo, that the
windlass was in fact an open and obvious danger, the crux of
Plaintiff s allegations is not a failure to warn. Plaintiff
argues Defendant was negligent in activating the windlass
while Plaintiff was holding the anchor line or was in close
proximity to the windlass. (Dkt. No. 41 at 6.) That perhaps could
be cast as an argument Defendant failed to warn Plaintiff
that he was about to activate the windlass. But
"[o]rdinary tort concepts also apply in admiralty
actions, " Everett v. Gerhart, No. 3:16 CV
3110, 2017 WL 3238156, at *2 (N-D. Ohio July 31, 2017), and
it is an ordinary tort concept that an open and obvious
danger is a danger that was known or obvious to the
injured party, Restatement (Second) of Torts § 343
A (1965). Plaintiff has admitted he knew the windlass was
toggling on and off while he was pulling the anchor line
(see Dkt. No. 34-2 at 10), but Plaintiff has raised
a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether it was
obvious that the anchor chain would respond as it did when
Plaintiff freed the anchor (see Id. at 11). The
Court concludes that whether the windlass was an open and
obvious danger is a factual question for trial, and therefore
denies Defendant's first motion for summary judgment as