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Sending back a wrongful death case, a federal appeals court said a trial judge erroneously ruled on a summary judgment issue that had not been raised in the case.
The U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals said neither party had argued whether the StudentCity tour company caused the accident that took the life of 18-year-old Lisa Tam Chung. Borrowing a quote from Shakespeare, Judge Bruce M. Selya said it was clear that causation was never before the court.
"To say more would be to paint the lily," Selya wrote in Chung v. StudentCity.Com. "The record reflects that the district court granted summary judgment for StudentCity on an issue -- causation -- as to which no discovery had been allowed and no notice had been afforded."
Chung, a high school student from South Grand Prairie, Texas, was on a tour boat in Cancun in the summer of 2008. She was there with other students who had booked the excursion through StudentCity.com.
The boat, provided by an independent contractor, struck a reef and started to sink. Chung put on a life jacked and jumped into the water, but nearly drowned. She was declared brain dead at a local hospital and died on June 10, 2008.
Her surviving family sued for wrongful death, alleging the tour company was negligent and other causes of action. The plaintiffs said the company promised its representatives would accompany the students at all times.
StudentCity's representatives never got on the boat, and the crew members abandoned ship before rescuers later arrived and saved the remaining passengers. Police said the captain overloaded the boat, causing it to list and crash.
Duty or Causation?
The tour company moved for summary judgment, arguing that it owed no duty to Chung. The trial judge said StudentCity assumed a duty to supervise, but dismissed the case because the accident was "caused by the overloading."
The appellate panel reversed and remanded, saying that judges may enter summary judgment on grounds not raised by the parties but not always. Their authority is "far from unbridled," the judges said.
Seyla wrote that the parties never submitted the question of causation to the judge. He rejected StudentCity's claim that it had raised the issue in the context of its argument about duty.
"[I]t is pellucid that these arguments were advanced not in connection with any issue of causation, but to support StudentCity's lack-of-duty theory," said Seyla, who is known for his use of obscure words to convey his meaning.