Tourism & Cruises

Royal Caribbean not responsible for overboard death of 22-year-old, jury finds

Royal Caribbean is not responsible for the death of a 22-year-old man who went overboard on one of its cruises in 2016, a federal jury found Monday, despite skipping a step in the line’s own search protocol.

Lisa and Todd Skokan sued Royal Caribbean after their son Nathan went overboard on Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas on Dec. 22, 2016 and was never found. The case was tried in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami.

The Skokans alleged that Royal Caribbean over-served Nathan on the five-night sailing to Mexico and did not do enough to keep him safe when he was drunk on board. They also claimed the cruise line’s search for Skokan was inadequate and that Royal Caribbean illegally detained them in their cabin for hours after the incident.

Also at issue was their emotional stress after the cruise line announced over the ship’s intercom that a passenger had jumped intentionally, despite eye witnesses who said Nathan’s fall was an accident. About 4,000 passengers were on board.

The family asked the jury to award them $5 million dollars.

Two eyewitnesses who saw Skokan go overboard said that one of them had joked to Skokan that if he wasn’t willing to party hard that night, their last on the cruise, then he might as well jump overboard. A security video shows Skokan walking to the railing, leaning over, and dropping from the 12th deck.

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Lawyers for Royal Caribbean maintained throughout the trial that the cruise line acted reasonably regarding serving Skokan drinks, noting that he did not appear dangerously intoxicated to witnesses or his family before he fell. They argued that Skokan was depressed and jumped off the ship intentionally, and that the company’s statements on the ship’s intercom and to the media reflected the truth.

They defended rescue efforts, saying the captain took orders from the Coast Guard, adapted to weather conditions and enlisted the help of several nearby cruise ships. They said that no one from Royal Caribbean told the Skokans they couldn’t leave their cabin.

Following Monday’s verdict, Skokan family attorney Michael Coyle said via a text, “Although disappointed in the verdict, the Skokans pursued this action with the hope another family never has to experience such a tragedy.”

Statistically speaking, cases of persons overboard are relatively rare in comparison to the number of cruisers; nearly 30 million people take cruises each year, and around 18 go overboard.

Though they attract intense public interest, few “person overboard” cases make it to a jury trial; some are dismissed and others settle. Precise details of the protocols governing such incidents are rarely disclosed.

In this case, the crew missed an important step and delayed another during their response, according to records revealed at trial.

Royal Caribbean’s Man Overboard Checklist dictates a series of crew actions. At the top of the checklist: “release life bouys with smoke signal and light and scan for the person.” The buoys light the area with smoke signals and provide the crew data about the current’s direction and speed — essential for determining where to send the rescue boats. Other actions on the checklist include recording the ship’s location at the time of alert and readying a team with stretchers.

In this incident, Royal Caribbean’s crew never released the buoys.

A written log from the bridge showed Skokan went overboard at 1:37 a.m. By 1:55 a.m., the crew was communicating with the U.S. Coast Guard. At 2:04 a.m., one of two rescue teams was ready. It wasn’t until two hours later, at 3:37 a.m. that they launched the first rescue boat into the water. The second was launched at 4:07 a.m.

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The Coast Guard took over the search at 6:13 a.m. and allowed the 4,560-passenger Independence of the Seas to return to Port Everglades. After 38 hours, the Coast Guard called off the search.

According to the log, the weather on Dec. 22, 2016 was good and the water swells were at three feet. Royal Caribbean’s lawyers said the captain used his discretion and decided searching from the cruise ship was a better option. They also said he was following orders from the Coast Guard. But a spokesperson for the Coast Guard said that while the Coast Guard responds to all maritime emergencies, they do not dictate how cruise ships conduct immediate rescue efforts.

“They’re supposed to be doing that on their own if it’s stuff on their checklist,” said Coast Guard Spokesman Jonathan Lally in an interview. “There’s things in place that they’re supposed to do to make sure they respond in a timely manner. When you’re out at sea, time is of the essence, especially when it comes to search and rescue.”

Recordings from the ship’s black box-like data recorder were not saved, testified Amanda Campos, Royal Caribbean’s director of litigation. The recorder picks up conversations on the ship’s bridge and might have provided insight into the crew’s deliberations about the search and rescue.

Taylor Dolven covers the tourism industry at the Miami Herald, where she aims to tell stories about the people who work in tourism and the people who enjoy it. Previously, she worked at Vice News in Brooklyn, NY, where she won a Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of NY for a national investigation of police shootings.