On December 22, 2016, the Independence of the Seas was returning to Port Everglades with approximately 3,600 passengers who were enjoying the last night of a four-night Christmas cruise. Shortly before 2 a.m., when the Royal Caribbean cruise ship was around 33 miles southeast of Key Largo, a 22 year-old student, Nathan Skokan, cruising with his family, went overboard.
“Nathan, while intoxicated, made his way to the ship’s exterior 12th-floor deck with multiple passengers he had met on the cruise,” a federal district court judge wrote last week in an order in a lawsuit Nathan’s family subsequently filed (you can read the Court order here).
“One of those passengers jokingly suggested they should jump overboard, pointing to the hand rail. In turn, Nathan pretended to throw himself up on the handrail, but when he went to sit on the handrail, . . . Nathan, seemingly intoxicated, lost his balance, slipped, and accidentally flipped over the ship’s railing.”
A number of cruise passengers informed the cruise ship officers and staff members that they witnessed a highly intoxicated guest accidentally go overboard, but Royal Caribbean ignored the eye-witness accounts and repeatedly announced to the thousands of guests and crew members and, later, to the press, that Nathan “intentionally” went overboard.
I first learned and wrote about the overboard early in the morning on December 22, 2016 when a freelance cruise travel writer aboard the Independence of the Seas tweeted that a passenger had gone overboard. On her Twitter account called @CruiseNiche, she tweeted that the captain of the cruise ship announced that the guest deliberately jumped from the ship:
— Cruise Niche (@CruiseNiche) December 22, 2016
By noon, Royal Caribbean had spread its false statement that Nathan “intentionally” went overboard to all of the news stations and newspapers in South Florida.
“. . . a 22-year-old man intentionally jumped overboard from the top deck of a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that was returning to Port Everglades,” NBC news station 6 reported based on Royal Caribbean’s press release.
Royal Caribbean spokesman Owen Torres told Miami local ABC news station 10 that Nathan was seen “intentionally going overboard” earlier that morning.
Local news station 7 reported that Nathan “intentionally jumped off the ship.” Royal Caribbean informed local CBS news station 4 (photo top) and WTSP channel 10, as well as the Associated Press, Fort Lauderdale’s Sun Sentinel and various travel publications that eye witnesses observed Nathan “intentionally going overboard.”
Nathan’s parents, Todd and Lisa Skokan, eventually filed suit against Royal Caribbean, alleging that the cruise line grossly over-served their son with alcohol, unreasonably failed to immediately initiate search-and-rescue efforts, and misrepresented that their son had intentionally jumped from the cruise ship.
Last week the federal trial court, U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga, analyzed the facts of the case after Royal Caribbean’s defense lawyers filed a motion for summary judgment, hoping to end the case before it proceeded to a jury trial next month (on November 13, 2018). The court held that there was more than sufficient evidence for a jury to accept the Skokan family’s factual submissions:
Royal Caribbean Sold 30 Ounces of Booze to 1 Passenger in Just 12 Hours
In denying Royal Caribbean’s motion, the court stated that the Skokan family presented “ample evidence disputing Defendant’s characterization of Nathan’s death as intentional. Plaintiffs point to multiple facts in the record showing (1) eyewitnesses observed Nathan intoxicated hours before his death, including Defendant’s employee who observed Nathan intoxicated 20 minutes before Nathan fell overboard; (2) eyewitnesses observed Nathan lost his balance and accidentally went overboard due to alcohol intoxication; (3) in the 12 hours preceding Nathan’s fall, Defendant served Nathan at least 30 ounces of alcohol, including six full-sized martinis at the martini making class earlier in the day and at least seven vodkas, two vodkas mixed with Red Bull, and one cognac; and (4) expert testimony that at the time Nathan went overboard, his level of intoxication had ‘presented an extreme risk of harm,’ supported by Nathan’s blood-alcohol content of at least .256 gm/dl, which can cause disorientation vertigo, muscular incoordination, and significantly impaired judgment.” (record citations omitted).
Royal Caribbean Did Not Immediately Conduct a Search and Rescue
The court also stated that the Skokans presented multiple facts indicating that Royal Caribbean’s search and rescue efforts were unreasonable. The court held that although “eyewitnesses immediately notified cruise personnel that Nathan had fallen overboard from the 12th floor deck Defendant (1) did not lower the rescue boats until two hours after being notified; (2) did not have its Rescue Team 2 ready for over an hour and a half after Rescue Team 1 was ready; and (3) placed its crew members approximately 100 feet above the water during the night, without additional use of search and rescue techniques.
Royal Caribbean Acted Outrageously in Repeatedly Announcing that Nathan Intentionally Jumped Overboard
The court stated that there was a basis for the Skokan family’s “intentional infliction of emotional distress” claim to be submitted to the jury, based on the cruise line’s is based on its repeated announcements that Nathan “intentionally fell overboard, which caused (them) immense grief that their son may have committed suicide –– which according to (the Skokans), Defendant and its employees knew at the time to be patently false.”
The court noted that ” . . . about seven hours after Nathan fell overboard and seven hours after being informed by multiple eyewitnesses that Nathan’s fall was an accident, Defendant made three public announcements, for thousands of passengers including Plaintiffs to hear, that a person on board
‘was witnessed intentionally going overboard from deck 12.’ Royal Caribbean also issued a statement to the press stating Nathan had intentionally gone overboard.”
The court stated that “indeed, (the Skokans) claim that by repeatedly announcing Nathan “intentionally” went overboard, Defendant falsified the true cause of Nathan’s death and publicly disclosed Nathan had committed suicide is supported by evidence showing Defendant was informed by
eyewitnesses that Nathan’s death was an accident. (The Skokans) construe
these facts as a cover up and provide evidence showing (they) were emotionally distressed as they understood the announcement to mean Nathan had committed suicide.
Royal Caribbean Falsely Imprisoned the Grieving Skokan Family
In addition, Judge Altonaga ruled that the family’s false imprisonment allegations against Royal Caribbean will be decided by a jury. The court stated that there are material issues of fact whether the cruise line ordered Nathan’s family back to their stateroom during the belated search-and-rescue effort and posted a guard to prevent them from leaving until the ship returned to port.
My view: “Suicide” – Cruise Lines’ Favorite Excuse When a Passenger Disappears at Sea?
Over eight years ago, I wrote “Suicide – Cruise Lines’ Favorite Excuse When a Passenger Disappears at Sea. I discussed that Royal Caribbean and other Miami-based cruise lines spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to create the illusion of carefree vacation getaways where hard working Americans can relax, let their guard down, and forget the worries of city life. Passenger “disappearances” are inconsistent with the cruise industry’s marketing image which sells tickets.
When a passenger “disappears” from a cruise ship, there are a number of possible explanations. Was foul play involved? Did the passenger act carelessly due to alcohol? Was the intoxication due to the cruise line’s negligence in over-serving the passenger to make the targeted profits for the cruise? Or was the disappearance due to a plan by the passenger to end his or her life?
The possibilities are many but the cruise lines’ conclusions are few. Cruise ships are quick to attack the passengers’ character and to steer blame away from themselves when a passenger goes overboard.
This particular case raises the fundamental issue whether a cruise like Royal Caribbean can ever be trusted to investigate incidents of passengers going overboard or, for that matter, crimes against passengers. When someone disappears at sea, there usually is no investigation by the flag state or independent law enforcement. The cruise lines know that they face potential liability when they recklessly serve a guest alcohol to and past the point of obvious intoxication. And they are particularly sensitive to their reputations following injuries or deaths involving violence, drunken rowdiness, and disappearances at sea.
Cruise lines say that the safety of their passengers is their highest priority, but that’s hardly true. What matters most to a cruise line like Royal Caribbean seems to be the public’s perception that cruise ships are safe rather than the reality that perhaps they are not.
Royal Caribbean is represented by Curtis Mase in Miami.
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Photo credit: Nathan Skokan – Daily Nebraska; local news snippets – South Florida news stations 4, 6, 7, 10 and WTSP.