This tragic case involved an eighteen-month-old girl who fell from the arms of her grandfather through an open window on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas in July of 2019. She fell 150 feet to the pier below, resulting in her death. The toddler’s parents filed suit in Federal District Court for the Southern District of Florida against the cruise line in December of 2019, alleging negligence and failure to warn of a hazard (the open window) on the cruise ship.
We reported on the sad set of circumstances on July 7, 2019, noting that there have been relatively few situations where toddlers have fallen from upper decks on cruise ships. In 2012, a 14 month old toddler fell from deck 12 to deck 11 on the Monarch of the Seas. The toddler was injured but, fortunately, fully recovered. However, that child was not dropped nor did she fall through an open window. In our 25 years of experience with Royal Caribbean, we are not aware of any similar cases to this one.
The Court Grants Summary Judgment
In addressing the motion for summary judgment filed by Royal Caribbean, the Court reviewed video of the scene which “vividly” reveals that the grandfather leaned his upper body over the wooden railing, which was about fifteen inches in front of the window for around eight seconds. The video then shows that the grandfather squatted down to pick up the toddler and then lift her over the railing as he again leaned his upper body over the railing a second time and held the child out in front of him.
The Court also reviewed photographs which show that the window in question is surrounded by other windows which were tinted. The open window appeared to be of a different color which indicated that the other windows were closed whereas the subject window was open. The grandfather also first placed the toddler on the wooden railing and then reached out to touch the window. He did not feel any glass but nonetheless lifted the child beyond the railing and extended her body causing her to fall to the dock below to her death,
Royal Caribbean Had No Notice of the Hazard
After extensive discovery was conducted by both parties, the Court ruled that the cruise line had “no notice of the risk-creating danger on the cruise ship,” which the Court defined as the “lifting a child up to an open window.” The cruise line submitted evidence that the U.S. Coast Guard has no prior incidents reports involving similar accidents.
The Grandfather’s Act of Lifting the Child Up to An Open Window Was a Superseding Cause of the Accident
The Court held that the grandfather’s conduct was the superseding cause of the incident which served to entirely exculpate the cruise line from liability. The Court noted that the grandfather pled guilty to the charge of negligent homicide (and was sentenced to three years probation). The Court cited caselaw for the legal proposition that “independent acts of third persons are deemed unforeseeable and therefore the sole proximate cause of the injury.”
Royal Caribbean Had No Duty to Warn of an Open and Obvious Danger
Having found that the hazard that led to the child’s death was the placing of the toddler on or through an open window, and that the grandfather either knew or should have known the window was open, the Court held that there is no duty to warn of the danger of placing a child in such a location.
A copy of the Court’s order today granting the summary judgement is attached here. A copy of the exhibits attached to the order (which are photographs of the accident scene and still images from the surveillance videos) are attached here.
Hard Fought Case
This case was hotly contested with the lawyers for both the family and the cruise line attacking one another in court filings. In February of this year, the family’s lawyers accused the cruise line of destroying evidence and “critical CCTV footage of the time leading up to the incident.” In May, the judge was so fed up with the personal animosity between the attorneys that he entered an order saying that court documents “resemble a Jerry Springer script,” and ordered the lawyers to rewrite “inflammatory” filings.
This Order Was Predictable
Almost exactly two years ago, I was quoted in a newspaper in Australia:
” . . . Miami-based maritime lawyer Jim Walker says proving negligence won’t be an easy feat for the family. ‘In order for a cruise line to be legally liable for this child’s death, the family’s lawyer must prove that the cruise line acted unreasonably and that the cruise line knew or should have known of the specific danger on its ship. This will be an exceedingly difficult burden for the lawyers to meet in this very sad and tragic set of circumstances. Without evidence (prior incidents or proof that the cruise line knew of a dangerous condition on the cruise ship) the chances are slim that the court (if suit is filed) would permit this case to proceed to a jury trial.'”
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Photo credit: Freedom of the Seas -By Beyond My Ken – CC BY-SA 4.0, commons / wikimedia; Royal Caribbean via theindychannel.