Case Number: 15-2171
Court: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit on appeal from the District of Puerto Rico (San Juan County)
Plaintiff's Attorney: Carlos A. Del Valle-Cruz, with whom Humberto Guzmán-Rodríguez
and Guzmán & Rodríguez were on brief, for appellants.
Defendant's Attorney: Salvador J. Antonetti-Stutts, with whom Aura Montes-
Rodríguez, Christian Echavarri-Junco, Nayuan Zouairabani and
O'Neill & Borges LLC were on brief, for appellee.
Description: Plaintiff Bernardino Santos-Rodríguez ("Santos") was injured in a boating accident when a
corroded rod end that was part of the boat's steering mechanism
failed. Santos and several relatives sued Defendant Seastar
Solutions ("Seastar"), the manufacturer of the boat's steering
mechanism, alleging a design defect and a failure to warn. Santos
appeals from the district court's grant of summary judgment in
favor of Seastar. We affirm.
A. Factual Background
1. The Boating Accident
On June 25, 2010, Santos was riding in a twin-engine
boat in a bay near Guayama, Puerto Rico. Raúl Viera-Torres
("Viera") owned the boat, which was equipped with a hydraulic
steering system manufactured in 2002 by Seastar (then known as
Teleflex Canada Ltd.). The rod connecting the steering system to
the right motor had a ball-joint at the end, which broke while the
boat was in motion, resulting in a loss of steering and ejecting
Santos from the boat. Santos sustained extensive injuries,
resulting in paraplegia. None of the other plaintiffs, all
relatives of Santos, were in the boat. Subsequent examination
revealed that the rod end failed because of corrosion.
2. The Instruction Manual and the Boat's Maintenance
The steering system's instruction manual (the "Manual")
informed owners that "[b]i-annual ins
pection [of the steering
system] by a qualified marine mechanic is required" and instructed
them to "[c]heck fittings and seal locations for leaks or damage
and service as necessary." The Manual did not include a specific
warning about corrosion of the rod end.
The boat's owner, Viera, acquired it second-hand. He
did not perform maintenance on the boat, did not keep a maintenance
log or request maintenance documentation from the previous owner,
and did not read the Manual or any of the warnings affixed to the
steering system. Viera hired third-party mechanics to maintain
the boat, but none of those mechanics ever brought the corroded
rod end to Viera's attention.
B. Procedural History
On June 14, 2012, Santos and four relatives filed the
operative complaint, claiming diversity jurisdiction and, in the
alternative, maritime jurisdiction. On March 13, 2015, the
district court granted summary judgment to Seastar. It first ruled
that federal maritime law, rather than the substantive law of
Puerto Rico, applied to the plaintiffs' claims. The district court
then determined that the plaintiffs' expert did not identify a
specific design defect in his expert report. In doing so, the
district court ruled that the expert's deposition testimony that
Seastar had used a type of stainless
steel that was prone to
corrosion in marine environments was inadmissible because it was
not raised in the expert's report. The district court also ruled
that Santos could not show causation on his failure-to-warn claim
because there was no evidence that Viera or any person maintaining
the boat had ever looked at the Manual or the steering system's
warning labels. Finally, the district court dismissed claims by
Santos's relatives, which were contingent on Santos's claims. The
district court denied the plaintiffs' motion to alter or amend the
judgment on September 8, 2015.
The plaintiffs timely appealed both orders.
"We review orders for summary judgment de novo,
assessing the record in the light most favorable to the nonmovant
and resolving all reasonable inferences in that party's favor."
Bingham v. Supervalu, Inc., 806 F.3d 5, 9 (1st Cir. 2015). Summary
judgment is appropriate if "there is no genuine dispute as to any
material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter
of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).
The plaintiffs claim that the district court erred by
applying federal maritime law, rather than the substantive law of
Puerto Rico. We need not address this choice-of-law issue,
however, because even under the law of Puerto Rico, the plaintiffs
have not created a triable issue of fact on their claims for either
a design defect or a failure to warn.
Santos Cannot Prove That Any Failure to Warn Caused His
Injuries Under Puerto Rico law,
[a] plaintiff alleging failure to warn must prove[:]
"(1) the manufacturer knew, or should have known of the
risk inherent in the product; (2) there were no
warnings or instructions, or those provided were
inadequate; (3) the absence of warnings made the product inherently dangerous; [and] (4) the absence of
adequate warnings or instructions was the proximate
cause of plaintiff's injury."
Cruz-Vargas v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 348 F.3d 271, 276 (1st
Cir. 2003) (quoting Aponte Rivera v. Sears Roebuck, 44 P.R. Offic.
Trans. 6, 144 D.P.R. 830 (1998)). The district court ruled that
Santos had not shown causation because it was uncontested that
Viera did not read the Manual, and there was no evidence that
Santos himself, the mechanics who maintained the boat, or the
boat's previous owner ever read the Manual or that anyone
communicated the warnings in the Manual to Viera.
Here on appeal, the plaintiffs briefly summarize
evidence that the Manual did not include any warnings about
corrosion of the rod end and their expert's conclusion that the
rod end was corroded and that this "caused loss of control of the
steering of the boat," leading to the accident and Santos's
injuries. They then assert, without citation, that "[u]nder Puerto
Rico law, this is sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material
fact." This argument does not address the district court's
conclusion that "no evidence has been brought [to] the court's
attention from which the trier of fact could reasonably infer that
the omission of additional warnings caused Santos's damages."
Unless someone read the Manual, no warnings in it could have
prevented Santos's injuries. Thus, even assuming that the Manual
did not contain "adequate warnings or instructions," that cannot
be "the proximate cause of [Santos's] injury." Cruz-Vargas, 348
F.3d at 276; see Ramírez v. Plough, Inc., 863 P.2d 167, 177 (Cal.
("Plaintiff's mother, who
administered the [drug] to
plaintiff, neither read nor obtained translation of the product
labeling. Thus, there is no conceivable causal connection between
the representations or omissions that accompanied the product and
plaintiff's injury."); Massok v. Keller Indus., Inc., 147 F. App'x
651, 660 (9th Cir. 2005) (applying California law) ("[The
plaintiff] admits that he did not read the warnings and so the
sufficiency of [the manufacturer's] warnings is therefore
irrelevant. [The plaintiff's] claim based on failure to warn is
"[T]he Supreme Court of Puerto Rico has consistently relied upon
California Supreme Court precedent when considering issues raised
by the doctrine of strict product liability." Acosta-Mestre v.
Hilton Int'l of P.R., Inc., 156 F.3d 49, 55 (1st Cir. 1998) (citing
Collazo–Santiago v. Toyota Motor Corp., 149 F.3d 23, 25 (1st Cir.
Santos Cannot Prove That Any Design Defect in the Steering
Rod Caused His Injuries
To prove a products liability claim under Puerto Rico
law, Santos must show that: "(1) [Seastar's] equipment has a
defect, in any of its modalities; (2) the defect existed when the
product left [Seastar's] control; (3) [Seastar] is in the business
of selling this type of product; (4) the defect was the adequate
cause of [Santos's injuries]; and (5) [Viera] use[d] the product
in a manner that was reasonable and foreseeable by [Seastar]."
Rodríguez-Méndez v. Laser Eye Surgery Mgmt. of P.R., Inc., 195
D.P.R. 769, translation at 23-24 (June 15, 2016).
Méndez, the plaintiff developed an eye issue after he received
laser eye surgery, and he sued the manufacturer of the surgical
equipment for selling a defective product.
Id. at 3. After
discovery, the manufacturer moved for summary judgment, arguing,
among other things, that the plaintiff had not identified a
specific defect in the surgical equipment. Id. at 5. The court
of first instance denied summary judgment, but the Puerto Rico
Supreme Court reversed and ordered dismissal. Id. at 25. It
determined that the plaintiff's reliance on the presence of metal
particles in his eye was insufficient "to establish that [the
surgical] equipment suffer[ed] from a manufacturing defect [or]
All citations are to the certified translation filed by Seastar
at Docket No. 69, Exhibit A.
was defectively designed." Id. at 24. Rather, the plaintiff's
evidence established only "that it is not normal to fin[d] metal
particles in one's eye," and that showing was "deficient and
insufficient" to survive summary judgment. Id. at 23.
Here, the plaintiffs' expert reported that the rod end
was corroded and that this corrosion "was the main cause for the
failure of the subject hydraulic steering cylinder rod end." No
admissible evidence shows that the corrosion was because of some
defect in the product's design. In fact, the plaintiffs' expert
report focuses almost exclusively on whether the Manual included
adequate warnings; it does not address whether the product was
The plaintiffs assert that the rod end "failed to perform
as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect" and that their
expert "reported that the product's design was subject to
corrosiveness." Their expert report, however, stated only that
Seastar was "required to warn against all foreseeable hazards . . .
associated with the subject hydraulic steering cylinder rod end's
At his deposition, the plaintiffs' expert testified that Seastar
used a type of stainless steel that "is not a good selection for
[a] marine environment," rather than a less-corrosive type of
stainless steel. But the district court ruled that that testimony
was inadmissible because it constituted a new theory not addressed
in the plaintiffs' expert report. On appeal, the plaintiffs "rely
. . . simply on the expert report, and do without the deposition
interchangeability, corrosiveness, preventive maintenance, and the
risks associated with its failure." It does not say that the rod
end's design made it particularly susceptible to corrosion.
The plaintiffs' real argument is that the rod end failed,
and that this is sufficient evidence of a design defect. This is
precisely the type of showing rejected in Rodríguez-Méndez, where
the plaintiffs' only evidence was that something was wrong -- he
had metal in his eye. 195 D.P.R. 769, translation at 23. Here,
the plaintiffs' only showing is that something was wrong -- the
rod end failed.
Thus, the plaintiffs did not present evidence
that Seastar's design of the rod end was defective.
The plaintiffs cite to Pérez-Trujillo v. Volvo Car Corp.
(Sweden), 137 F.3d 50, 55 (1st Cir. 1998), for the proposition
that "the malfunction itself is circumstantial evidence of a
defective condition." This fails, first, because it is contrary
to Rodríguez. Second, Pérez-Trujillo was a manufacturing defects
case, in which the defendant argued that its product could not
have malfunctioned in the way described. But an eyewitness
directly observed the product malfunction -- an airbag deploying
under normal driving conditions -- and the Court stated that
"direct observation of the malfunction itself is circumstantial
evidence of a defective condition." Id. (emphasis added).
The plaintiffs also assert that because Santos was an invitee,
he was not responsible for the boat's maintenance. Thus, they
reason, if "the accident was attributable to the owner's negligence
in maintenance, and not to its design," it was Seastar's burden to
cross-claim against Viera. The plaintiffs cite no authority for
the proposition that Seastar could be liable for Viera's negligence
after he purchased the steering system, and Rodríguez-Méndez
forecloses this possibility. 195 D.P.R. 769, translation at 24
(holding that the manufacturer would not be liable if the doctor
"departed from the reasonable use of the surgical machinery or did
not give the require[d] maintenance").
The Plaintiffs' Derivative Claims Cannot Survive
As Santos's four family memb
ers admit, their claims
under Article 1802 of the Puerto Rico Civil Code -- Puerto Rico's
general tort statute -- are derivative of Santos's claims, and so
if his "claim fails, so too do the relative[s'] derivative
claim[s]." González Figueroa v. J.C. Penney P.R., Inc., 568 F.3d
313, 320 (1st Cir. 2009). Because the district court properly
granted summary judgment on Santos's underlying claims, his
relatives' derivative claims cannot succeed.
Outcome: For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the district
court's judgment. The parties shall bear their own costs.