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Leonard Santangelo, et al. v. Sandals Resorts International

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY


December 31, 2010

LEONARD SANTANGELO, ET AL.
PLAINTIFFS,
v.
SANDALS RESORTS INTERNATIONAL, LTD.; REAL RESORTS, LTD., D/B/A BEACHES NEGRIL RESORT; BEACHES MANAGEMENT LTD.; UNIQUE VACATIONS, INC.; TEPPANYAKI RESTAURANT; JOHN DOES 1,2 AND 3 (FICTITIOUS NAMES; AND ABC CORPORATIONS 1,2 AND 3 (FICTITIOUS NAMES) DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.

OPINION

Sandals Resorts International, Ltd. ("SRI") and Unique Vacations, Inc. ("Unique"), the two defendants served in this negligence action, now move for summary judgment [D.E. 38] and ask the Court to dismiss plaintiffs‟ amended complaint [D.E. 13] as to them. Sandals and Unique ("defendants") base their motion on the premise that: the undisputed facts in this case establish that [p]laintiffs cannot establish that the only two named defendants who are before this Court have committed any acts of negligence or are liable to plaintiffs in any way for this action, and thus, summary judgment in favor of Sandals Resorts and Unique should be granted.

(Defs‟ Moving Br. 7.)

The Court agrees for the reasons that follow.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND:*fn1

On May 19, 2007, the plaintiffs, six members of three different families residing in New Jersey, went on vacation together to Beaches Negril Resort ("Beaches Negril") in Jamaica. (Am. Compl. ¶ 11.) Plaintiffs ate their meals together at Beaches Negril, including a dinner on May 21 at Teppanyaki Restaurant ("Teppanyaki").*fn2 After the meal, the complaint recites that plaintiffs became "violently ill," experiencing "severe gastrointestinal distress and diarrhea" that persisted for "several days," leaving them "bid-ridden[sic] and unable to consume food." (Id. ¶¶ 14-16.) Plaintiffs sought treatment in Jamaica, but their illnesses persisted on their return, days later, to the United States. (Id. 17.) Plaintiffs claim that they were diagnosed with "gastroenteritis and dehydration" and that "primary physicians established that plaintiffs tested positive for Salmonella." (Id. ¶¶ 18-19.) Their complaint alleges that, because plaintiffs consumed their food and drink exclusively at Beaches Negril, "[t]herefore, the food poisoning occurred at Beaches Negril." (Id. ¶ 20.)

Plaintiffs brought this action in May 2009 against Unique and SRI, two separate corporations that provide services to a group of hotels doing business under the names "Sandals" and "Beaches."*fn3 (Defs‟ Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 1, 9.) SRI provides management services to the hotels, while Unique provides marketing and reservation services. According to plaintiffs, Unique organized their vacation. (Id. ¶ 13.)

Plaintiffs‟ amended complaint alleges that SRI owed a duty to exercise reasonable care for guests at Beaches Negril and to oversee and supervise the restaurant where plaintiffs ate, but failed to do so. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 23-27.) Plaintiffs additionally claim that Unique, "due to its close relationship with Sandals," breached its duty to warn plaintiffs of the risks of the "likelihood of suffering food poisoning" at Beaches Negril. (Id. ¶¶ 28-33.) According to the plaintiffs, defendants‟ negligence proximately caused their illnesses.

The moving defendants deny owning, operating, managing or employing anyone at Beaches Negril. (Defs‟ Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 2-16.) They also state that they played no role in preparing or serving food at Beaches Negril, including at Teppanyaki. (Id.) These assertions, supported by the affidavit of Unique‟s president and the declaration of SRI‟s managing director [D.E. 38], are not disputed by plaintiffs. Therefore, pursuant to L. Civ. R. 56.1(a), the Court deems them admitted as facts.*fn4 See L. Civ. R. 56.1(a) ("any material fact deadline for filing dispositive motions, plaintiffs never did so. As a result, the unserved defendants have not been joined to the case, and the Court orders dismissed counts 1 and 3 of the amended complaint as to Real Resorts, Beaches Management and Teppanyaki.

STANDARD OF REVIEW:

Summary judgment is appropriate where "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact [and] movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). When a party moves for summary judgment, the non-moving party must then provide "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). An issue is genuine where "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Fowle v. C & C Cola, 868 F.2d 59, 61 (3d Cir. 1989) (internal citations omitted). In determining whether there is a genuine issue for trial, "all justifiable inferences are to be drawn" in favor of the non-movant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). The Court thus may grant defendants' summary judgment motion when, "after adequate time for discovery and upon motion. . . [a party] fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party‟s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

Affidavits supporting or opposing summary judgment must "be made on personal knowledge, set out facts that would be admissible in evidence" and, if they reference a document, "a sworn or certified copy must be attached or served with the affidavit." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(1). Local Rule 7.2(a) further provides that affidavits "shall be restricted to statements of fact within the personal knowledge of the affiant" and that "legal argument and summations in affidavits will be disregarded by the Court."

ANALYSIS:

An "underlying principl[e] of tort law" is that "‟an actor's conduct must not only be tortious in character but it must also be a legal cause of the invasion of another's interest.‟" Reynolds v. Gonzalez, 172 N.J. 266, 284 (N.J. 2002) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 9 cmt. a (1965)). For plaintiffs here, this means presenting "evidence or reasonable inferences therefrom showing a proximate causal relation" between SRI‟s and Unique‟s alleged negligence and plaintiffs‟ resulting illnesses. Id. (citing Germann v. Matriss, 55 N.J. 193, 205 (1970)).

Defendants argue that plaintiffs "cannot point to any action or inaction that led to their claimed injuries," and have not supplied "a single fact to dispute" the sworn statements by representatives of Unique and SRI that they neither own nor operate Beaches Negril. (Defs.‟ Reply Br. 6.) The Court agrees, finding that plaintiffs have not produced evidence establishing that defendants acted negligently or caused or contributed to the alleged food poisoning at Beaches Negril. More fundamentally, plaintiffs have not come forward with evidence sufficient to connect Unique and SRI to the resort and restaurant where they became ill.

In opposing summary judgment, plaintiffs submitted three certifications -each nearly identical save for minor details-stating that the three plaintiffs: planned a ""Sandals‟ Vacation to Beaches Negril in Jamaica" by researching "Sandals Resorts brochures, website, and advertisements"; were "clearly led to believe that we were dealing with Sandals Resorts" ; and received an invoice for their trip with a "Sandals Beaches by Sandals Resorts" logo and "contact information for Unique Vacations, Inc.." (Certifications of Leonard Santangelo Sr., Leonard Santangelo Jr., and Faith Speidel In Supp. of Pls‟ Opp‟n to Defs‟ Mot. for Summ. J. ¶¶ 1-4, 12.) The certifications further state:

I believe that Defendant Teppanyaki Restaurant is responsible for our damages. I also believe that Defendants [SRI] and [Unique] are also responsible as they are all affiliated with one another. . . therefore it is Sandals/Unique who must be held accountable for our suffering. (Id. ¶ 12.)

The certifications are the sole evidentiary basis submitted by plaintiffs to establish that negligence by Unique and SRI caused plaintiffs‟ illness. The Court notes that the factual assertions in the certifications, which are treated here as affidavits, are unsupported by documentation, records or other evidence. This lack of supporting notwithstanding for the availability of discovery, is jarring. Plaintiffs fail, for example, to submit the referenced invoice with the Sandals logo, despite the requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(1). Nor do plaintiffs present the Court with a single brochure, advertisement or a screen-shot of the website that they reference in their certifications.

Instead, plaintiffs‟ certifications reflect unsupported conclusions (plaintiffs were "clearly led to believe that we were dealing with Sandals Resorts" and "enticed by Sandals/Unique"; "therefore it is Sandals/Unique who must be held accountable for our suffering"), suspicions ("Sandals [seeks to] escape liability because they have formed some sort of "shell game‟"), and guesses ("I believe [defendants are liable] as they are all affiliated with one another"). These are not statements of fact based on personal knowledge, but rather are "arguments and summations," and the Court cannot recognize them in making its summary judgment analysis.

Finally, as defendants point out, two of the certifications are contradicted by plaintiffs‟ own testimony. The certification of Santangelo Sr. contains the above-quoted statements regarding the planning of the trip, but at his deposition, Santangelo Sr. testified that he did not know who arranged the vacation to Beaches Negril ("my wife takes care of all the arrangements on the traveling, I have nothing to do with that") and that he had never heard of defendant Unique. (Supp. Cert. of John D. Coyle, Ex. 0, 64:7-24.) Likewise, plaintiff Speidel, whose certification also contains the above-quoted language, testified that she had not made reservations for the trip, seen any brochures before going on vacation or ever heard of Unique. (Id. Ex. P, 45:14-25.)

Because plaintiffs have failed to establish the liability element of their case and have failed to come forward with specific facts showing a genuine disputed issue for trial regarding, the Court finds that defendants‟ motion for summary judgment must be granted. In light of this ruling, the Court finds it unnecessary to address the quality of the medical evidence presented by plaintiffs to establish their injury.

While recognizing the paucity of plaintiffs‟ evidence, the sanction of dismissal is a sufficient response and the Court denies defendants‟ motion for sanctions.

Conclusion:

For the reasons stated above, defendants‟ motion for summary judgment is granted, and the motion for sanctions is denied. Counts 1 and 2 of the amended complaint as they relate to defendants SRI and Unique are dismissed.The Court further orders that counts 1 and 3 of the amended complaint as they relate to defendants Real Resorts Ltd., Beaches Management Ltd., and Teppanyaki Restaurant are dismissed for failure to effect service of summons and complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(m).

Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.


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