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Manhattan By Sail, Inc. v. Tagle

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

October 5, 2017

Manhattan by Sail, Inc., as Owners, Operators, and Agents of the Excursion sailing vessel, Shearwater Classic Schooner For Exoneration from or Limitation of Liability, Shearwater Holdings, LTD., as Owners, Operators, and Agents of the Excursion sailing vessel, Shearwater Classic Schooner For Exoneration from or Limitation of Liability, Petitioners-Appellees,
v.
Charis Tagle, Respondent-Appellant.

          Argued: October 24, 2016

         Passenger, claiming negligence as the cause of her injury during an excursion on a sailing vessel when a crewman lost hold of a weighted halyard which then swung free, striking passenger's head, appeals from the judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Valerie Caproni, J.) exonerating the vessel owner from liability after nonjury trial. The district court concluded that the passenger failed to adduce evidence that would sustain application of res ipsa loquitur to show negligence because she failed to show that the occurrence was of the sort that could occur only because of negligence. VACATED and REMANDED.

          David R. Hornig (Guerric S.D.L. Russell, on the brief), Nicoletti Hornig & Sweeney, New York, NY, for Petitioners- Appellees.

          Jonathan R. Ratchik, Kramer & Dunleavy, L.L.P., New York, NY, for Respondent-Appellant.

          Before: LEVAL, SACK, and RAGGI, Circuit Judges.

          LEVAL, Circuit Judge

         Charis Tagle, who was injured while a passenger on the sailing vessel Shearwater Classic Schooner (the "Shearwater"), appeals from the judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Valerie Caproni, J.) entered after a nonjury trial, which exonerated the vessel owners, Manhattan by Sail, Inc. and Shearwater Holdings, Ltd., from liability for the injury. Tagle was injured when a deckhand unclipped a weighted halyard from the forestaysail at the bow of the vessel and lost hold of it, so that it swung free and struck her in the head. The shipowners offered no evidence explaining why he lost hold of it. The district court ruled that the passenger failed to show negligence or entitlement to application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur because a seaman's loss of control of a line can occur without negligence. This was error. The passenger made a showing of negligence, which the shipowners failed to rebut. The judgment is vacated, and the matter remanded with directions to enter a finding of negligence.

         BACKGROUND

         1. The Accident at Issue

         On April 30, 2011, Charis Tagle purchased passage aboard the Shearwater, a sightseeing vessel which takes passengers on excursions in New York Harbor. Tagle boarded the ship, and a crewmember directed her to sit on a wooden hatch next to the forestaysail mast. The forestaysail mast is positioned between the main mast (near the center of the ship) and the bow.

         The Shearwater cast off under engine power into the lower Hudson River. David Zimmerman, the captain, ordered the crew to raise the forestaysail. The forestaysail is raised by means of a halyard, which runs from the base of the forestaysail mast vertically up the mast to a wooden block (or pulley) near the top of the mast, through the block, and from there forward to the bow, where it is attached to a grommet at the top corner of the triangular forestaysail by means of a one-pound stainless steel clip, called a pelican clip. The sail is raised by pulling downward on the end of the halyard at the bottom of the mast, so that the other end of the halyard (the end attached to the sail at the bow) pulls the top of the sail upward toward the pulley near the top of the mast. When the pelican clip at the forward end of the halyard is clipped to the sail, the forward part of the halyard is immobilized. On the other hand, if the clip is detached from the sail when the halyard is extended forward from the mast toward the bow, the halyard will be pulled by gravity toward the base of the mast from which it hangs and, unless held secure, will swing as a pendulum.

         When Zimmerman ordered that the forestaysail be raised, Christopher Biggins, a deckhand, detached the halyard from the sail. In his testimony at trial, Biggins could not remember why he unclipped the halyard. Tugged by gravitational force toward the mast, the freed halyard pulled loose from Biggins's grip and swung back towards the mast where Tagle was seated. The clip at the end of the halyard struck Tagle and cut her forehead. Although Biggins knew immediately after losing control of the halyard that it had struck and injured a passenger, he testified at trial that he could not recall why he lost control of it. The captain testified that Biggins reported at the time that "while he was hooking up the halyard to the forestaysail, it slipped out of his hands and swung like a pendulum . . . ." A-63-64.

         2. The Instant Action

         Tagle filed suit in New York state court, alleging that the negligence of the crew caused her injury. The owners of the Shearwater then filed this petition in admiralty seeking exoneration from liability, pursuant to the Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30501, et seq. Tagle's state court lawsuit was stayed pending resolution of the district court's action. The ...


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