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Judy v. Mako Marine International Inc.

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

October 17, 2019

Keith Brian Judy, Plaintiff,
Mako Marine International, Inc., and Tracker Marine, LLC d/b/a Tracker Marine Group, Defendants.


          Richard Mark Gergel United States District Court Judge

         Before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 34). For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted.

         1. Background

         This action arises out of a 2006 Mako Marine 234 ("the Boat") that capsized in July 2015.[1] Plaintiff Keith Brian Judy purchased the Boat approximately ten days before the accident on July 2, 2015 from Robert Youmans, a prior owner of the Boat. (Dkt. No. 34-3 at 16.) A few days after purchasing the Boat, Plaintiff took the Boat out on Lake Santee, where the Boat's battery running a radio for music died. (Id. at 18.) Plaintiff stated he recharged the Boat's batteries after the battery died, though did not take other corrective action. (Id. at 19-21.)

         On the date of the incident, a few days later, Plaintiff and two passengers launched the Boat in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. (Dkt. Nos. 34-3 at 20 - 21, 29, 32; 34-5 at 3.) It was the first time Plaintiff had taken the Boat into the ocean. (Dkt. No. 34-3 at 20.) The batteries died when Plaintiff and his passengers were approximately 20 - 25 miles offshore. (Id. at 60 - 61.) After the batteries died, the bilge-pump did not work without power and Plaintiff does not recall seeing the bilge pumps working. (Id. at 27, 44.) Further, the Boat's VHF radio was unable to reach anyone and Plaintiff had no emergency radio or other emergency communication device. (Id. at 31, 45, 48.) The boat ultimately took on water and capsized, at which point Plaintiff and his passengers floated in the ocean for 22 hours before being rescued by the Coast Guard. (Id. at 57; 34-5.)

         Defendants now move for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiff has failed to create any dispute of material fact that Defendants caused the Boat to capsize. (Dkt. No. 34-1.) Plaintiff opposes summary judgment, and Defendants filed a reply. (Dkt. Nos. 35, 36.) Additionally, Defendants moved to strike an affidavit by Neil Haynes, Plaintiffs expert, filed with Plaintiffs response to summary judgment, arguing the affidavit contradicts Haynes' report and testimony. (Dkt. No. 37.) Plaintiff opposes the motion, and Defendants filed a reply. (Dkt. Nos. 38, 39.)

         II. Legal Standard

         To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the movant must demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The party seeking summary judgment has the burden of identifying the portions of the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, any admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which 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). The Court will construe all inferences and ambiguities against the movant and in favor of the non-moving party. U.S. v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962). The existence of a mere scintilla of evidence in support of the non-moving party's position is insufficient to withstand a motion for summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986). However, an issue of material fact is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in favor of the non-movant. Id. at 257.

         "When the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56(c), its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). "In the language of the Rule, the nonmoving party must come forward with 'specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 587. "Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no 'genuine issue for trial.'" Id. (quoting First Nat 7 Bank of Ariz. v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 289 (1968)).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff brings three products liability claims against Defendants: negligence, strict liability and breach of warranty. (Dkt. No. 5.) Plaintiff alleges, generally, that his injuries were proximately caused by Defendants' defective manufacture, design and warnings contained on the Boat. (Id.) Plaintiff asserts his claims under admiralty law. (Id. at ¶ 5.) As the alleged tort occurred in navigable waters, Plaintiffs tort claims for negligence and strict liability fall under admiralty law. See Mahony v. Lowcountry Boatworks, LLC, 465 F.Supp.2d 547, 550 (D.S.C. 2006) ("The traditional test for admiralty tort jurisdiction asked only whether the tort occurred on navigable waters. If it did, admiralty jurisdiction followed; if it did not, admiralty jurisdiction did not exist.") quoting Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527, 531-32, 115 S.Ct. 1043 (1995); Ace Am. Ins. Co. v. Grand Banks Yachts, Ltd., 587 F.Supp.2d 697, 700 (D. Md. 2008) (applying admiralty law to negligence and strict liability actions). However, breach of warranty claims are tried under the Court's diversity jurisdiction and therefore state law applies. See E. River S.S. Corp. v. Transamerica Delaval, Inc., 476 U.S. 858, 872, 106 S.Ct. 2295, 2303 (1986) ("Since contracts relating to the construction of or supply of materials to a ship are not within the admiralty jurisdiction...neither are warranty claims grounded in such contracts.... State law would govern the actions.") (citations omitted). It is undisputed that the Boat was purchased in South Carolina. (See Dkt. Nos. 34-3 at 16, 19, 52; 34-4 at 3.) Therefore, South Carolina law applies to the breach of warranty claim.

         Regardless, under any of these claims a plaintiff must be able to present evidence that there was some defect and that the alleged defect was the cause of the damages. See Dandridge v. Crane Co., No. 2:12-CV-00484-DCN, 2016 WL 319938, at *2 (D.S.C. Jan. 27, 2016) (citing standards for negligence and strict liability, "[u]nder maritime law, a manufacturer is liable for 'harm caused by a product sold in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous.' ... "Under any theory of product liability, plaintiff must establish causation with respect to each defendant manufacturer."); Evergreen Int'l, S.A. v. Norfolk Dredging Co., 531 F.3d 302, 308 (4th Cir. 2008) ("The elements of a maritime negligence cause of action are essentially the same as land-based negligence under the common law, free of 'inappropriate common law concepts.'") (citations omitted); First State Sav. & Loan v. Phelps, 299 S.C. 441, 448, 385 S.E.2d 821, 825 (1989) (holding for breach of express warranty, plaintiff must show: "[1] the existence of the warranty, [2] its breach by the failure of the goods to conform to the warranted description, and [3] damages proximately cause by the breach."); Brooks v. GAF Materials Corp., 41 F.Supp.3d 474, 482 (D.S.C. 2014) ("To recover for breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, a plaintiff must prove (1) a merchant sold goods; (2) the goods were not 'merchantable' at the time of sale; (3) the plaintiff or his property were injured by such goods; (4) the defect or other condition amounting to a breach of the implied warranty of merchantability proximately caused the injury; and (5) the plaintiff so injured gave timely notice to the seller.").[2]

         Here, however, Plaintiff has failed to present any non-speculative testimony or record evidence indicating that there was a defect or that the alleged defect proximately caused Plaintiffs injuries here. The sole evidence presented by Plaintiff regarding the existence of a defect and its proximate cause of the injuries here comes from Neil Haynes, Plaintiffs expert. (Dkt. Nos. 34-2; 35-2.) Haynes' opinion focuses on the alleged lack of a watertight seal on the fish boxes in the Boat, which allegedly permitted water to accumulate in the bilge. (Dkt. No. 35-2 at 6.)

         However, Haynes was unable to testify or opine to more than a "possibility" that any defect actually existed with the Boat. (See Dkt. No. 34-2 at 31 - 31, "Q: So, in your opinion, it's a possibility that those gaps occurred because of the application procedure... A: It's a possibility"; "Q: Is it fair to say that, at least in terms of engineering probability or certainty, that you don't know when those gaps happened or why? A: I do not."). In one telling exchange, Haynes acknowledged that he ...

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