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Expert Testimony in Cruise Line Negligence Case Should Be Admitted, Sorrels v. NCL Ltd., 796 F.3d 1275 (11th Cir. 2015)

Cruise ship negligence lawsuits, as with any action for negligence, requires that plaintiffs show that the cruise line owed them a duty of reasonable care as passengers and that it engaged in conduct that breached such duty to its passengers. Subsequently, plaintiffs have to prove that the cruise line’s breach of its duty caused the plaintiff’s injuries and, as a result, the plaintiff incurred damages. As the case below will illustrate, most cases will hang on the question of causation, and plaintiffs have to provide evidence to prove that the negligent action caused their injuries or harm.

In Sorrels v. NCL Ltd., a woman suffered injuries when she slipped and fell on the deck of a cruise ship that was wet from the rain. The woman filed suit against the cruise line in a federal district court in Florida for negligence under maritime law, which provides that the owner of a vessel operating on waterways owes its passengers a duty to exercise reasonable care. During the trial, the plaintiff offered expert testimony regarding the degree of slip resistance of the surface of the cruise ship’s deck. The expert testimony indicated that the cruise line knew or should have known that the surface did not meet the minimum standards for passenger walkways and that it posed an unreasonable risk to passengers when wet. In response, the defendant requested for the court to strike the expert testimony the plaintiff provided from the record and grant summary judgment in the cruise line’s favor. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, removed the expert testimony from the record, and granted summary judgment for the defendant. The plaintiff filed an appeal with a federal appeals court.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit heard the appeal. The plaintiff argued before the court of appeals that the district court erroneously struck the expert testimony she offered from the record about the slip resistance of the cruise ship’s deck surface. Additionally, the plaintiff argued that there were material facts in dispute and, therefore, the district court let the case move forward instead of granting summary judgment in the defendant’s favor.

The court of appeals stated that the trial court should not have excluded the expert testimony from evidence and abused its discretion in doing so. The court of appeals indicated that the expert testimony regarding safety standards that are customary for cruise ships, particularly standards regarding the slip resistance for deck surfaces, was relevant to the claim and should be considered by the jury. The court of appeals stated that such evidence is relevant to determining liability in slip and fall claims involving a potentially dangerous surface.

Although defendant argued that such standards are only applicable for employees, the court ruled that both staff and passengers used ship decks and, therefore, slip resistance was relevant for both. Additionally, the court of appeals indicated that the trial court should reexamine if the expert testimony provided by the plaintiff were prejudicial to the jury. As such, the court of appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the case for trial.

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