By Dr. Gary Deel, Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
In July of last year, an 18-month old baby girl fell to her death from the pool deck of a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. A lawsuit is pending over the circumstances of the incident. I am an attorney and a professor of hospitality management, but I also happen to be an avid cruiser, having sailed on Royal Caribbean ships more than half a dozen times. So I thought I might share some first-hand perspective on this tragic death and the likely legal aftermath.
First, the facts as reported: The toddler’s grandfather was watching Chloe on the pool deck when she ran over to the windows on the side of the ship. Chloe motioned to her grandfather to lift her up so she could see better. He picked her up and leaned her forward so that she could touch the window. But the wall of glass had panes which can be slid open by guests, and the pane in front of Chloe happened to be open at the time. When she leaned forward she fell through the opening and 150 feet down onto the concrete pier below, killing her instantly.
Chloe’s grandfather has been charged with negligent homicide, which must only compound the shame and agony of having contributed to his granddaughter’s death. But the more pivotal legal action is between the toddler’s family and the cruise line. CBS News reports that the parents have filed a wrongful death suit against Royal Caribbean on the grounds that the open windows are latent (i.e., non-obvious) hazards. There are no markings or warnings which distinguish between sliding windows and fixed panes of glass. The parents allege there should have been.
No ‘Freak Accident,’ it Was Preventable Family Lawyer Says
“This is not some freak accident,” the family’s’ lawyer told NBC News. “This is something that was a preventable accident.”
“These windows are entirely not compliant with the standard for windows on cruise ships,” he said.
From a legal perspective, this is new territory for the cruise industry. However, land-based hotels might be an influential analog. Most high-rise hotels today have eliminated any kind of movable windows in their hotel rooms for two reasons: hotels today are climate controlled so windows are sealed shut. Secondly, modern construction also is attuned to the risk of someone falling through an open window, either accidentally or in a suicide attempt, and that risk is just too high.
Family Seeks Damages for Daughter’s Death
According to NBC, Chloe’s family “is seeking an unspecified amount of damages for their daughter’s death. In the suit filed in federal court in Miami, they say the cruise line failed to ‘provide reasonably safe children entertainment areas,’ failed to ‘adequately mark the open windows,’ and failed to ‘install safety prevention devices on windows,’ among other grievances.”
But the trend toward permanently closed windows in land-based hotels certainly won’t be the only determinative factor in the legal battle that is about to be waged in a Miami courtroom.
In a recent development, footage from a security camera onboard the ship was released to the press. The video shows Chloe’s grandfather approaching the open window alone, moments before Chloe’s fall. At the railing, he is seen leaning through the open window to look down at the pier below. A few moments later, he returns to the railing with Chloe, and that is when she falls.
This new evidence seems to undermine the claim by Chloe’s family that the open window was a latent hazard by Chloe’s family. Again, a latent hazard is a non-obvious circumstance that may cause harm to persons who do not anticipate it and therefore cannot avoid it or defend against it. As an example, a clear liquid spilled on a tile floor might constitute a latent hazard, because it would be difficult to detect unless or until one steps—and perhaps slips—in it.
But the moment that a person becomes aware of the hazard, it is no longer latent, and such a person has a duty to take steps that avoid unnecessary harm. So imagine that you come across the clear liquid spilled on a tile floor, as described above. It is impossible to see. You notice it only when you step in it, but fortunately you do not slip or fall.
At this point, you have a duty to mitigate damages and harm. That means that, recognizing the hazard for what it is, you should immediately step out of the water and away from the danger to the extent possible. If you continue walking through the water unnecessarily—and are injured as a result—you will have greater difficulty hanging your damages around the neck of the person responsible for maintaining a safe floor because you had the opportunity to avoid harm. In the law, this is called the “last clear chance” doctrine, because you had the last clear chance to prevent the injury.
Likewise, the moment that Chloe’s grandfather walked to the railing and stuck his head through the open window he became aware that the window itself was not present. And at that moment, any claim of latent hazard concerning his return to the open window with Chloe vanished because he already knew the circumstances of the window.
Perhaps Chloe’s grandfather simply forgot the window was open. Perhaps he wasn’t paying attention and it just didn’t register for him. Or perhaps when he returned to the railing with Chloe he thought he was in front of a different window. To be fair, they all look more or less the same. Regardless of the reasons, this unsafe premises case will undoubtedly be a lot more difficult for Chloe’s family now that this new evidence has emerged.
But a finding of some negligence on the part of the cruise line is still not completely out of the question. We will watch this case closely.
About the Author: Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others. To contact him, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.