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Guest v. Hansen

December 18, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe U.S. District Judge


I. Introduction

Plaintiff Stephen M. Guest brings this negligence action to recover damages arising out of the death of his daughter, Kristine B. Guest ("Guest"), who died in a snowmobiling accident on Lower St. Regis Lake in Franklin County, New York on February 6, 2005. At the time of her death, Guest was a passenger on a snowmobile that was owned by defendant Michael F. Hansen and was being operated by Joshua L. Rau, a student at defendant Paul Smith's College of Arts and Sciences. Rau, the operator of the snowmobile, also died in the accident. The court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Pending is a motion by defendants Paul Smith's College of Arts and Sciences and Toni Marra for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, the motion for summary judgment is granted as to the moving defendants.

II. Facts*fn1

A. Events Leading to the Deaths of Rau and Guest

Sometime in late January or early February of 2005, Joshua Rau, a sophomore at Paul Smith's College of Arts and Sciences ("Paul Smith's College" or "College") in Franklin County, New York, invited Kristine Guest and several other friends to come and visit him to celebrate his twentieth birthday. Thus, on the morning of Saturday, February 5, 2005, Guest and three other women drove from Northeastern University in Boston, where they had stayed on Friday night, to Paul Smith's College. At the time, Guest, like Rau, was twenty years old, and was a sophomore at Quinnipiac College in Connecticut.

Guest and her friends arrived at Paul Smith's College at approximately 4:00 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. Upon their arrival, they freshened up and then went to dinner in the town of Saranac Lake with Rau. None of the party consumed any alcoholic beverages at dinner, or while in Saranac Lake. The group returned to Rau's dorm room at Paul Smith's College at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., at which point Rau prepared a mixed drink, or punch, consisting of Jagermeister, peach Schnapps, and pineapple juice. The concoction was a specialty of Rau's; he had prepared the same drink for the women during a previous visit to Quinnipiac. The group of friends hung out in Rau's dorm room, and passed the time by playing a drinking game called "checkers." The game was played much like ordinary checkers, except that shot glasses filled with the Jagermeister concoction were substituted in place of the usual red and black checker pieces. Under the rules of the game, a player whose shot glass was "jumped" by an opposing player was required to drink the contents of the shot glass. Both Guest and Rau participated in the game of checkers.

At around 10:00 p.m., after the game of checkers had wound down, Rau, Guest, and their friends walked down to the frozen shore of the Lower St. Regis Lake (the "Lake"). The Lake abuts the southwest side of the College campus, and is about fifteen steps from the entrance to Rau's dormitory, Clinton Hall. The group brought the remainder of the Jagermeister-based mixed drink with them to the Lake in Nalgene bottles.*fn2

There was a bonfire out on the frozen Lake, and Rau, Guest, and the others walked out to join the people who had gathered there. The bonfire had been built by other students from Clinton Hall at around 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. The bonfire around which the students congregated was approximately 200 feet from the shore. The pyre was visible from the campus, but the party--if such it could be called--was not audible from inside the campus dormitories. Paul Smith's College does not own the Lake; thus, the bonfire was not on College property.

According to the recollection of one witness, when the group reached the bonfire shortly after 10:00 p.m., no one there appeared to be overly intoxicated. Rau, Guest, and their friends were likewise not intoxicated at that time, although they were feeling happy and/or "buzzed." Rau and Guest were at the bonfire on and off between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 3:30 a.m. Like the other revelers, they returned to the campus for warmth from time to time. The party was a raucous affair.*fn3 Between eighty and one hundred people were in attendance; alcohol was present in abundance; people threw cups of gasoline onto the fire; snowmobiles were riding about, sometimes at high rates of speed; and students were intoxicated, some of them to the point that their voices rang out in shouts. In short, to at least one observer, the party was out of hand.

At around 3:00 or 3:30 a.m. on the morning of February 6, 2005, the crowd at the bonfire began to disperse. Rau, Guest, and their friends left the bonfire at around 3:30 a.m., and returned to Rau's dorm room. Rau and Guest did not consume any more alcohol upon returning to Rau's room. Sometime later--as early as 4:00 a.m., or as late as 5:00 a.m.--the group returned to the bonfire and the frozen Lake with the intention of watching the sun rise.*fn4 At that time, there were approximately twelve people at the bonfire, and there were as many as four snowmobiles on the Lake. Witnesses recall that Rau did not appear intoxicated when he was out on the Lake at around 4:30 or 5:00 a.m.

Fog had blanketed the Lake throughout much of the night. In fact, at around 11:00 p.m., Rau had sought to borrow a friend's snowmobile, but the friend had refused due to the heavy fog. However, when Rau and Guest returned to the bonfire at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m., the fog had perhaps lessened to some extent. Rau asked his friend, Christopher Hansen, if he could use Hansen's snowmobile*fn5 while they waited for the sun to rise, and Hansen assented. Rau first drove two of Guest's friends for a ride around the Lake. Helmets were available for their use, but neither Rau nor the two women used the helmets. After escorting the first two women around the Lake, Guest and Rau set off together on the Hansen snowmobile, with Rau driving. Neither Rau nor Guest wore a helmet. When the snowmobile did not return after five minutes, Hansen went to look for his friends. He came upon the overturned snowmobile near Peter's Rock, a peninsula in Lower St. Regis Lake, the land on which is owned by Paul Smith's College. The sled had struck the rocky promontory. The bodies of Rau and Guest lay in the snow near Peter's Rock. Both Rau and Guest died as a result of their injuries.

B. The Actions of College Staff

In the early morning hours of February 6, 2005, Toni Marra, then Director of Residence Life, and Jamie Shova, a Campus Safety Officer, went down to the Lower St. Regis Lake after receiving a report that someone had gone missing, or been injured on the Lake. Marra and Shova arrived at the Lake at approximately 12:45 a.m., only to learn that the report had been in error. They lingered for a time, and spoke with a number of the students gathered on the frozen Lake. Although it was apparent to Shova that students were drinking, and that a potentially dangerous situation existed, Marra and Shova elected not to call the police.*fn6 Further, although they may have encouraged the students to disperse or to be safe, they did not threaten them with disciplinary action. As Safety Officer Shova explained, ...

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