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2nd Cir. Decides Sailing Injury Res Ipsa Loquitur

By William Vogeler, Esq. on October 09, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

'Anchors aweigh!'

It's the march song of the United States Navy and also a call to sailors that a ship is underway. But even as anchors clear the sea bottom, maneuvers begin above like a ballet in a foreign language.

On a classic sailboat, deck hands make halyards whir, winches whine and blocks groan. The only meaningful word to unschooled passengers is "boom."

In the vernacular, that's what happened to Charis Tagle aboard the schooner Shearwater. She got hit in the head when a halyard swung across the foredeck and struck her with a pelican clip.

The Pelican Clip and the Pendulum

Launched in 1929, Shearwater served as a pleasure craft and later as a Coast Guard vessel during World War II. Today, she takes tourists around New York Harbor to see the Statue of Liberty and other landmarks.

Tagle boarded the schooner -- a two-masted yacht -- to take in the sights in April 2011. She sat on a wooden hatch on the foredeck next to the forestaysail mast, located between the bow and the main mast.

As the ship cast off, the captain ordered the crew to raise the forestaysail. It required them to pull down on a halyard, a line which runs from the base of the mast, up through a wooden block at the top, and down to the foredeck where the sail is prepared for raising.

The halyard that day was to be attached to the head of the forestaysail with a pelican clip, which snaps closed with a pin to secure the corner of the sail. It can be quickly released to change sails.

Before a crewman could attach the sail to the halyard, the weight of the pelican clip made it swing across the deck and hit Tagle in the forehead. According to the captain, when the crew member was "hooking up the halyard to the forestaysail, it slipped out of his hands and swung like a pendulum."

Res Ipsa Loquitor and Negligence

Tagle sued in New York state court, alleging negligence against the yacht company. The Shearwater's owners filed in federal court for protection under maritime law.

In Tagle v. Manhattan by Sail, Inc., the plaintiff argued that the crew was responsible res ipsa loquitur because she could not explain exactly how she was injured. The trial judge rejected the argument, saying "sailors do, even when exercising ordinary care, sometimes lose control of a line -- whether due to wind or an unexpected wave or wake."

On appeal, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals said the judge didn't understand the doctrine. It doesn't mean something could happen only because of negligence; it can be something that ordinarily doesn't happen without negligence.

"An extended halyard that is permitted to swing freely from the top of the mast represents an obvious danger, especially when it has a one pound clip attached to the swinging end, the justices said. "It is a seaman's job to keep such lines secure to prevent them from swinging dangerously."

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