Reversing an earlier summary judgment from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in favor of a cruise line after a slip-and-fall injury, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit remanded the case for trial.
That means the woman who fractured her risk after slipping and falling on the pool deck of the cruise ship will have the opportunity to have her case, Sorrels v. NCL, heard by a jury.
A previous ruling in favor of the cruise ship stemmed from the exclusion of expert witness testimony and related publications regarding the coefficient of friction on the surface of the ship. Sometimes referred to as COF, the coefficient of friction refers to the degree of friction on a given surface that provides slip resistance.
Industry standards regarding COF vary depending on the kind of structure and what the purpose of the walking surface. For example, the COF for a boardwalk that regularly takes on water would have to be higher than that of an indoor space that is typically very dry or not heavily traveled. Engineers set these standards based on a number factors, and take into account the type of materials or material combinations of the floor (i.e., brick vs. wood vs. pavement) and the static friction necessary to move on a clean, dry surface.
The higher the COF rating, the less slippery the surface is going to be.
In slip-and-fall lawsuits, evidence regarding a given surface’s COF is generally presented via the testimony of an expert witness who weighs in on the industry standard for a given surface and whether the surface in question met that standard.
In this federal lawsuit in question, plaintiff was on a cruise in 2012 when she slipped and fell on the pool deck, which was slick with rain water. As a result of that fall, she suffered a fractured wrist.
She and her husband sued the cruise line for damages, alleging it had been negligent. In order to prove this, plaintiff had to show the cruise ship had a duty to protect her from a given injury, the cruise line breached this duty and proximately caused the injury, thus resulting in actual harm.
To establish the duty and breach elements, plaintiffs presented testimony from a civil engineer who conducted COF testing on the pool deck, approximately 520 days after the incident. The tests were performed after a recent rainfall (as was the case when plaintiff slipped), and discovered an average COF value of the wet surface to be 0.45. This, the expert opined, was below the minimum acceptable standard for this type of surface, which should have a COF value of at least 0.5. That’s the federal standard for passenger walkways on cruise ships. However, the industry standard is set at 0.6 for walkways where crew members walk. Expert witness asserted the standard should be the same – 0.6 – regardless of whether it was a crew member walking the surface or a passenger. Further, the witness testified the issue with COF on the ship was related to maintenance, not construction.
However, the district court granted summary judgment to defense, finding that 0.6 standard was only applicable to crew members and plaintiff expert witness testimony was unreliable.
The appeals court reversed in part. This was a walkway used by both passengers and crew members, and it did fail to meet the minimum standards. The appeals court found the district court applied the incorrect legal standard when granting summary judgment, and reversed.
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Sorrels v. NCL, Aug. 4, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
More Blog Entries:
Chavez v. 24 Hour Fitness – Waiver of Liability Exceptions for Gross Negligence, July 27, 2015, West Palm Beach Cruise Injury Attorney Blog