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Hirst v. Inverness Hotel Corp.

September 19, 2008

JANET HIRST; DAVID HIRST, APPELLANTS
v.
INVERNESS HOTEL CORP., D/B/A CHENAY BAY BEACH RESORT; CHENAY BAY BEACH CLUB, INC.; RANGER AMERICAN OF THE VI, INC.; PETER LOCKE; DEBI FORBES; VICTORIA LOCKE; RICHARD LOCKE; R.F. CORP.; 515909 ONTARIO LTD.; SUN VACATION PROPERTIES CORP.



On Appeal from the District Court of the Virgin Islands (D.C. Civil No. 04-cv-00095) District Judge: Honorable Anne E. Thompson.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rendell, Circuit Judge.

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued May 5, 2008

Before: RENDELL, FUENTES, and CHAGARES, Circuit Judges.

OPINION OF THE COURT

Appellants Janet and David Hirst ("the Hirsts") appeal the final judgment of the District Court in favor of Appellee Ranger American of V.I. ("Ranger") following a jury trial and verdict. The Hirsts contend that the District Court committed legal error at trial by allowing Ranger's president to give improper lay opinion testimony concerning the issue of proximate causation in violation of Federal Rule of Evidence 701. We agree. For the reasons stated below, we will vacate the District Court's entry of judgment and remand for a new trial.

BACKGROUND

On July 20, 2004, the Hirsts filed a complaint in the District Court of the Virgin Islands against Inverness Hotel Corporation, alleging negligence and loss of consortium in connection with the July 4, 2004, rape of Janet Hirst at the Chenay Bay Beach Resort ("Chenay Bay") in St. Croix. On July 28, 2004, the Hirsts amended their complaint, adding a number of individual and corporate defendants, including Ranger, the security services company employed by Chenay Bay. By the time the case went to trial, Ranger was the only defendant that remained.

Beginning on November 27, 2006, the case was tried before a jury in St. Croix. Over the course of the trial, the jury heard evidence that, on July 4, 2004, after returning from an evening fireworks display, Janet Hirst was raped in her vacation cottage at Chenay Bay by a man wearing latex gloves and a bandana that covered his face. According to Mrs. Hirst, the rapist-who was never found and/or identified-used a grocery bag as a make-shift condom and was careful to wipe down various areas of the room before he fled.

The Hirsts introduced evidence that Chenay Bay had contracted with the defendant, Ranger, to provide nighttime security services for the resort. Ranger was to provide a uniformed security guard every evening between 9:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. The guard's duties were outlined in a document drafted by Ranger known as "post orders" (App. 58-60; see also App. 272-73) and included, inter alia, patrolling the "entire complex" twice an hour "without exhibiting a pattern," monitoring all incoming and outgoing activities "to ensure that unauthorized persons/vehicles refrain from accessing the properties," and escorting late arriving guests to their rooms (App. 60; see also 273-74). The post orders also required the security guard to carry a flashlight and a radio.

The night of Mrs. Hirst's rape, the Ranger security guard on duty, Felix St. Rose ("St. Rose"),*fn1 arrived for his shift "some minutes before ten." (App. 254-55.) He was provided with neither a flashlight nor a radio. St. Rose testified that, during his shift, he failed to perform several of the duties enumerated in the post orders. For example, St. Rose patrolled the resort only once an hour, instead of twice an hour as the post orders required. Additionally, St. Rose did not patrol at all the area of the resort where Mrs. Hirst was raped. According to St. Rose, he did not patrol the area where the Hirsts' cottage was located because his supervisor told him that the area was "too dark for [his] own safety." (App. 256.)*fn2 St. Rose believed that "without a flashlight or without any light, somebody could jump out and knock [him] down or knock [him] out." (App. 265)

In addition to Mrs. Hirst and St. Rose, the jury heard from several other witnesses, including Ranger's president, Juan Bravo ("Bravo"), whose testimony is the subject of this appeal. At the very conclusion of Bravo's direct examination,*fn3 Ranger's counsel asked Bravo whether Ranger could have been able to prevent Mrs. Hirst's rape, immediately prompting an objection. The trial transcript reveals the following exchange:

Q: Based on your knowledge of the facts of this case, could Ranger American, within the limited scope of its functions, have been able to ...


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