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Wrongful death suit in student’s drowning reinstated

Wrongful death suit in student’s drowning reinstated

A federal appeals court has reinstated a wrongful death suit filed against a student travel organizer by the parents of a girl who died during a Mexican snorkeling expedition on an overloaded boat.

Lisa Tam Chung and her friend, Loren Daily, high school seniors in Grand Prairie, Texas, signed on for a June 2008 graduation trip to Cancun, Mexico, organized by Peabody, Massachusetts-based Inc. that included an optional snorkeling excursion, according to the April 14 ruling by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston in Oahn Nguyen Chung et al. v. Inc. Parents were promised StudentCity staff would attend all events, according to the ruling.

On June 7, 2008, StudentCity staff drove the girls to the SS Sea Star, a catamaran, but did not come on board, according to the ruling. The vessel was approved to carry 80 passengers and three crewmembers, but carried a total of 210 persons including 120 StudentCity travelers, according to the ruling.

The Sea Star hit a coral reef and began to take on water, but the crew provided no assistance to the passengers and some deserted ship. Acting on their own, Lisa and Loren donned life preservers and tried to reach safety by grabbing a rope that extended between the Sea Star and a small private vessel, but were pulled under the water. 

Loren suffered serious injuries but survived, while Lisa was pronounced brain dead at a local hospital and died on June 10, 2008.

The harbormaster and Mexican government concluded the accident was caused by the boat’s overloading.

Lisa’s parents filed a wrongful death suit against StudentCity. The U.S. District Court in Boston granted StudentCity summary judgment dismissing the case, holding Lisa’s death was not caused by StudentCity staff’s inadequate supervision. The plaintiffs appealed, and a unanimous three-judge panel reinstated the case.

“The plaintiffs’ flagship claim is that StudentCity’s failure to supervise the snorkeling excursion, in combination with the shipowner’s negligence, caused Lisa’s death,” said the ruling.

“The district court’s reasoning seems to give insufficient weight to the venerable rule that more than one tortfeasor can be held responsible for a single incident.”

The ruling says, “On the meager record before us, numerous potential jury questions loom. For example, would an on-duty StudentCity representative, if on board at the commencement of the voyage, have thought that the boat as overcrowded and confronted its captain and crew?

“Would that representative have prevented the passengers from congregating on one side of the vessel and thus avoided its tragic imbalance?

“Would StudentCity supervision have effected a more efficient emergency exit for Lisa, particularly in view of the fact that some Sea Star crew members deserted ship?

“The answers to these (and other) questions of fact are not certain. What is certain, though, is that none of these questions were properly before the district court at summary judgment,” said the ruling, in vacating the lower court’s ruling and remanding the case for further proceedings.


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