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Buccina v. Grimsby

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Western Division

June 6, 2017

Nancy Buccina, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
Linda Ann Grimsby, Defendant.

          ORDER

          James G. Carr, Sr. U.S. District Judge

         This is a case within this court's admiralty jurisdiction in which the jury returned a verdict for the defendant, Linda Grimsby-the owner and operator of a pleasure craft in which plaintiff, Nancy Buccina, was a bow seat passenger. The suit arises from personal injuries Ms. Buccina suffered after being forcibly lifted from the boat when it struck a three-foot wake/wave despite defendant's efforts to reduce from “planing” to “idle” speed and swerve to avoid hitting the wake/wave head on.

         Pending is the plaintiffs' motion for a new trial under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a) and/or a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a). (Doc. 129).

         For the reasons that follow, I grant the motion.

         Background

         Factual Background

         The accident occurred on June 10, 2012, as Ms. Grimsby was operating her seventeen-foot boat downstream on the Maumee River towards Lake Erie. A Ms. Marie Roy was also a passenger. According to plaintiffs, the Maumee River was crowded with boat traffic that particular day, and as traffic became congested, the boats created choppy wakes/waves as high as two feet. As the defendant's boat neared the lake, the number of vessels and the wakes/waves it encountered grew increasingly larger.

         Plaintiffs further allege that at a certain point on the Maumee River, defendant encountered an area where multiple larger vessels were creating wakes/waves directly ahead of their boat's path. Suddenly, according to plaintiff, the boat “struck a wave or wake and pitched violently downward which caused Plaintiff Buccina to be thrown up from the seat in the open bow seating area.” (Doc. 1, ¶ 12). Then, “[w]hile in motion, the Pleasure Boat pitched upward as Plaintiff Buccina was coming back down due to gravity.” (Id.). As a result, Nancy's buttocks compressed against the pleasure boat's bow seat, resulting in her injuries.

         Just before striking the wake/wave, defendant claims she turned the boat slightly and slowed down, but despite her efforts, she could not avoid striking it.

         Of significance to the pending motion and, specifically, to the issue of liability, is the boat's speed. The parties' estimates of the boat's speed vary, with Ms. Buccina and Ms. Roy estimating it to have been in excess of twenty miles per hour and defendant contending her speed was less. Ms. Roy testified that shortly before the accident, she told defendant to be careful. Defendant maintained speed as the boat approached the wake/wave. In other words, defendant did not slow down to idle speed as the boat approached the wake/wave.

         After the impact, Ms. Buccina said she needed medical treatment, so defendant drove the boat to the Toledo Coast Guard station. On-duty Coast Guard personnel helped Ms. Buccina out of the boat, onto a gurney, and into an ambulance, after which she was taken to the hospital for treatment.

         Procedural Background

         Ms. Buccina and her husband, Scot Buccina, filed their complaint on November 3, 2014, claiming that defendant's negligent operation of the boat caused their damages. Specifically, plaintiffs assert claims of negligence, negligence per se, gross negligence, reckless misconduct, and loss of consortium.

         In December, 2016, I held a jury trial. The jury concluded defendant was not negligent in her operation of the boat and, therefore, not liable for plaintiffs' damages.[1]

         Plaintiffs now seek a new trial on the basis that: 1) I made errors of law by refusing to apply specific Inland Navigation Rules, to give a negligence per se instruction, and allow admission of negligent navigation; 2) the jury's verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence; and 3) defense counsel included an improper argument during closing argument.

         On review of the parties' briefs, the transcript, [2] and my own recollection and notes, I conclude that the jury's verdict is against the weight of the evidence, and, accordingly, I grant the plaintiffs' motion for a new trial.[3]

         Standard of Review

         A motion for a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 may be granted “when a jury has reached a ‘seriously erroneous result' as evidenced by: (1) the verdict being against the weight of the evidence; (2) the damages being excessive; or (3) the trial being unfair to the moving party in some fashion, i.e., the proceedings being influenced by prejudice or bias.” Holmes v. City of Massillon, 78 F.3d 1041, 1045-46 (6th Cir. 1996).

         As a trial judge, my authority to grant a new trial pursuant to Rule 59(a) “is large.” Gasperini v. Ctr. for the Humanities, Inc., 518 U.S. 415, 433 (1996); see also Id. (“‘The trial judge in the federal system, ' we have reaffirmed, ‘has . . . discretion to grant a new trial if the verdict appears to [the judge] to be against the weight of the evidence.'”) (quoting Byrd v. Blue Ridge Rural Elec. Coop., Inc., 356 U.S. 525, 540 (1958)). In the Sixth Circuit, “the disposition of a motion for a new trial is committed to the sound discretion of the trial judge.” Luck v. Baltimore & Ohio R.R. Co., 510 F.2d 663, 668 (6th Cir. 1974).

         When ruling on a Rule 59 motion, I must view all contested facts in favor of upholding the jury's verdict and avoid completely making credibility assessments or weighing the evidence. E.g., Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150-51 (2000).

         Discussion

         Because this case arises within this Court's admiralty jurisdiction, substantive maritime law applies. E. River S.S. Corp. v. Transamerica Delaval, Inc., 476 U.S. 858, 864 (1986).

         The elements of a negligence claim under maritime law mirror the elements of a common law negligence claim-duty, breach, causation, and damages. Hartley v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 118 F. App'x 914, 919 (6th Cir. 2004) (“[U]nder the general maritime law, the elements of negligence are generally the same as a common law negligence action, i.e. duty, breach, causation and damages.”); see also In re: Inland Marine Serv., Inc. v. Estates of Stack, 183 F.Supp.3d 844, 851 (S.D. Ohio 2016); Cornucopia Cruise Line, Inc. v. Cummings Marine, Inc., 2012 WL 786836, *5 (W. D. Tenn.) (“‘[N]egligence is an actionable wrong under general maritime law, ' and its elements are ‘essentially the same as land-based negligence under common law.'”) (quoting Withhart v. Otto Candies, L.L.C., 431 F.3d 840, 842 (5th Cir. 2005)).

         Thus, plaintiffs needed to establish: 1) the existence of a duty of care owed by defendant to Ms. Buccina; 2) a breach of that duty by defendant; 3) a causal connection between the breach and the resulting injury; and 4) damages. In re: Inland Marine Serv., Inc., supra, 183 F.Supp.3d at 851.

         Further, the Inland Navigation Rules, 33 C.F.R. § 83.01 et seq., “apply to all vessels upon the inland waters of the United States.” 33 C.F.R. § 83.01(a). The Rules “impose a duty of care on vessel owners and operators to operate such vessels under the ‘rule of good seamenship' and in a safe and seaworthy manner.” In re: Inland Marine Serv., Inc., supra, 183 F.Supp.3d at 851 (internal citation omitted).

         I am persuaded, on the basis of the undisputed facts and testimony presented at trial, that the jury could reach only one result, and that is not the result it reached on the issue of liability.

         A. Duty

         First, as evidenced by my instruction to the jury, there is no dispute that defendant owed a duty as a matter of law to Ms. Buccina-as well as the other passenger-to operate her boat safely. See, e.g., Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625 (1959).[4]

         Therefore, the only remaining issue with respect to the jury's verdict is whether defendant breached that legal duty-namely, whether she operated the boat safely (i.e., with due regard for foreseeable risks)-which I discuss next.

         B. Breach

         As plaintiffs emphasize, “[f]oreseeability is the alpha and omega of this motion and fatal to Defendant's opposition and the jury's verdict.” (Doc. 134, 11). I agree.

         Foreseeability-the essential question when determining breach-“‘does not require that the negligent person should have been able to foresee the injury in the precise form in which it in fact occurred.'” Adams v. CSX Transp., Inc., 899 F.2d 536, 540 (6th Cir. 1990) (quoting Green v. River Terminal Ry. Co., 763 F.2d 805, 808 (6th Cir. 1985) (internal citation omitted)). Instead, “[a] harm is a foreseeable consequence of an act or omission if it ‘might have been anticipated by a reasonably thoughtful person, as a probable result of the act or omission.'” Cornucopia Cruise Line, Inc., supra, 2012 WL at *5 (quoting Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. LLC v. La. State, 624 F.3d 201, 211-12 (5th Cir. 2010) (internal citation omitted)).

         Here, the jury reached a seriously erroneous result with respect to breach-namely, whether defendant should have foreseen or anticipated the harm caused by the boat's impact with the wake/wave.[5] To conclude that defendant was not negligent in her operation of the boat, the jury must have concluded that a reasonable person in defendant's position would not have foreseen this consequence-the impact and plaintiff's injury-as a probable result of her operation of the pleasure boat at planing speed despite the water conditions (i.e., the number of other vessels in the water and the increased wakes/waves formed directly in the pleasure boat's path) and the warnings of her passengers. Based on the testimony at trial, this conclusion is against the manifest weight of the evidence, thus warranting a new trial.

         First, defendant knew that a wake/wave similar to that which the pleasure boat struck was foreseeable based on the knowledge she gained from boating safety courses. At trial, defendant testified about several boating safety courses taught by the Coast Guard and the Oakland County Police Department. Those courses discussed safety protocol and provided instruction on maintaining safe speed and approaching wakes/waves at appropriate speeds and angles to avoid potential harm.

         Completion of these boating safety courses shows defendant was aware of the potential harms that could result when encountering a wake/wave at a high speed. Specifically, defendant testified:

Q. Did the course that you took on boating safety did they teach you that you shouldn't encounter a wake or a ...

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