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Chung v. Studentcity.Com, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

April 14, 2017

OAHN NGUYEN CHUNG, Individually and as Administratrix of the Estate of LISA TAM CHUNG, and LIEM CHUNG, Plaintiffs, Appellants, OLLIE DAILY, LOREN DAILY and PATRICIA DAILY, Plaintiffs,
STUDENTCITY.COM, INC., Defendant, Appellee.


          Joseph P. Musacchio, with whom Anthony Tarricone and Kreindler and Kreindler LLP were on brief, for appellants.

          Rodney E. Gould, with whom Robert C. Mueller and Smith Duggan Buell & Rufo LLP were on brief, for appellee.

          Before Howard, Chief Judge, Selya and Lynch, Circuit Judges.

          SELYA, Circuit Judge.

         District courts have authority to enter summary judgment on grounds not raised by the parties. That authority, though, is far from unbridled. Here, the district court - with the acquiescence of the parties - limited pretrial discovery to specific issues. It later entered summary judgment on a completely different issue - an issue not briefed and on which discovery had not been allowed. Concluding, as we do, that the district court's shift in focus exceeded its authority, we vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         We rehearse the facts in the light most amenable to the parties opposing summary judgment (here, the plaintiffs). See Jones v. Secord, 684 F.3d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 2012)., Inc. (StudentCity) is a Delaware corporation that maintains its principal place of business in Massachusetts. It sells vacation packages to students, including those traveling for spring break or to celebrate graduations.

         In the fall of 2007, Lisa Tam Chung and Loren Daily were high-school seniors in Grand Prairie, Texas. A StudentCity representative contacted Loren to promote the firm's wares and piqued her curiosity about booking a graduation trip. Once a critical mass of students had expressed interest about such a trip, the StudentCity representative held an informational meeting. The representative assured the assemblage (including several parents) that StudentCity staff attend all events and that participating students would not be permitted to go anywhere unaccompanied. She also distributed promotional materials that stated in pertinent part:

. StudentCity will provide "[o]n site staff at all scheduled events - beginning to end."
. StudentCity "staffs all scheduled events from beginning to end."
. StudentCity maintains "the largest staff-to-student ratio and our 24-hour staff is there to give you the peace of mind you need."
. StudentCity staff will be present "to assure that everyone is having a great and responsible time."

         Loren's parents met with the StudentCity representative and read the written materials. Lisa relayed StudentCity's representations to her parents, who had limited English proficiency. With the blessing of both families, the girls purchased vacation packages for a June 2008 trip to Cancún, Mexico, adding an optional snorkeling excursion.

         The snorkeling excursion took place on June 7, when the participants boarded the SS Sea Star, a catamaran owned and operated by Servicios Maritimos y Acua del Caribe SA de C.V. (SMA). A StudentCity staff member transported Lisa and Loren to the Sea Star, a vessel approved to carry eighty passengers and three crew members for this kind of outing.[1] On the day in question, however, it carried at least 120 StudentCity travelers and no fewer than 210 persons in total. No on-duty StudentCity representative was on board.

         The snorkeling trip had a tragic ending: the Sea Star hit a coral reef and began to take on water, yet the crew provided no assistance to the passengers (indeed, some crew members deserted ship). Acting on their own, Lisa and Loren donned life preservers and tried to reach safety by grabbing a rope that extended between the Sea Star and a small private vessel. Their efforts failed and they were pulled under the water. Loren suffered serious injuries, but survived; Lisa was pronounced brain dead at a local hospital and died on June 10, 2008.

         Following an investigation, the harbormaster concluded that the "concentration of passengers in the boat" caused a "considerable imbalance, " which most likely led to the Sea Star's collision with the coral reef. Similarly, the Mexican government attributed the accident to the catamaran's "imprudent overload" and the "negligent performance" of the captain.

         A civil action ensued. Although this suit originally had a wider compass, the only claim that is still velivolant is the claim for Lisa's wrongful death - a claim brought by her parents, Oahn Nguyen Chung (individually and in her capacity as administratrix of Lisa's estate) and Liem Chung.[2] As to this claim, StudentCity moved to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), 56(a). The district court denied the motion to dismiss, but reserved decision on summary ...

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