How did a family vacation go so horribly wrong?
The Weigand family of South Bend, Indiana, took a cruise on the Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas ship in 2019. Their daughter, 18-month-old Chloe, was being supervised by her grandfather, Sam Anello, in a play area on the 11th floor of the ship as it was docked in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Video surveillance from the ship shows that Anello leaned over an interior railing near a bank of windows, and he then lifted Chloe onto the railing. In a moment, she had slipped off the railing and fell out the window, 119 feet to her death on the ground.
Mr. Anello pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in Puerto Rico, but will serve no jail time. He will be on probation in Indiana.
While it was a clear lapse in judgment for Chloe’s grandfather to hold her over the railing, other questions arose about whether the cruise line was at fault, too.
Wiegand family sues Royal Caribbean
Chloe’s parents, Alan and Kimberly Weigand, sued the Royal Caribbean cruise line, claiming that the company failed to “adequately mark the open windows” and install safety prevention devices. The grandfather said that at the time he lifted the child onto the railing, he believed the window was closed.
However, a video showed that Mr. Anello had reached out in front of him and put his hands where the glass would be if the window was closed, so he should have known that it was open.
The judge determined that Chloe’s tragic death was caused by the grandfather lifting her onto the railing by the open window, not by the fact that the window was open.
Mr. Anello said in a statement that the windows shouldn’t have been made to open. He claimed that in every hotel or building in the U.S. where there are windows that high, the windows don’t open more than a few inches high or wide. However, the ship had a window that could be open wide enough for a child to slip through, and it was right next to the kids’ play area.
Despite this, the judge said that:
“A reasonable person through ordinary use of his senses would have known of the dangers associated with Mr. Anello’s conduct. Accordingly, the defendant [Royal Caribbean] owed no duty to warn of it.”
Premises liability lawsuits for vacation rentals and cruise lines
We expect our vacations to be picture-perfect (even when we anticipate family drama, flat tires, and other unforeseen circumstances). But we never anticipate a tragedy.
Sadly, tragedies do happen — like in the case of poor Chloe Wiegand.
When such tragedies do occur, the question is:
Do family members have the right to sue for dangerous premises at rental properties like Airbnb, resorts, or cruise ships?
Yes, they do.
A vacation property in the U.S. must be reasonably free from hazards, just like any other area where you have permission to be. An accident caused by the cruise line or property owner’s negligence, or by the negligence of its employees or agents, can lead to a premises liability lawsuit.
The cruise line is liable for a passenger’s injury if it was caused by the cruise line’s negligence.
A rental home is considered a business if it’s used as your vacation home for 14 days or fewer in a year, or less than 10% of the days it’s rented to others. The property is a personal residence if the owner uses it for more than 14 days or more than 10% of the days it’s rented.
Some vacation rentals require the renter to sign a contract that includes provisions like:
“I am aware that my stay at the Property involves risks that may result in serious bodily injury and/or death. Some of the risks include, but are not limited to, drowning, falling, sports injury, slips, trips, falls, cuts, adverse weather conditions, the acts or omissions of guests or visitors on the Property during my stay, and the condition of the Property. I understand that the description of the risks in this Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims and Assumption of Risk (the "Document") is not complete and that other risks or events that are known or unknown, anticipated or unanticipated may result in serious bodily injury and/or death.”
Still, signing a disclaimer contract like this does not excuse negligence. If you’re injured as a result of negligence, you have a right to claim damages from the owner of the property.
Slip and fall injuries on cruise ships
Some common causes of slip and fall injuries on cruise ships include:
- Slippery decks
- Crowded areas
- Cleaning carts or other obstacles that can shift with the motion of the water
These types of accidents could result in injuries like broken bones, sprains, or muscle tears, or even head or spine injuries.
However, while decks would be expected to be slippery, there are incidents that happen for reasons that are negligent, such as:
- Ripped carpeting or damaged steps or floors
- Defective equipment
- Food or spills on the floor
- Recently washed/wet floors
When you are pursuing a premises liability claim, you must ask these questions:
- Was the property owner aware of the unsafe condition? In actuality, the question is whether the owner was aware of the hazard within a reasonable amount of time to correct or warn visitors.
- Did the property owner warn visitors of the danger? For example, if the ship’s deck floor becomes slippery under certain conditions, there should be signs or warnings for passengers to be careful.
- Did the property owner try to correct the condition? The owner has a duty to make a reasonable attempt to correct a dangerous condition on their property.
Common defenses to premises liability lawsuits
There are several ways in which a property owner or cruise ship company might defend against a premises liability claim. In a case like the one against Royal Caribbean for Chloe’s death, the cruise line used these arguments:
- Open and obvious danger One of the most common defenses to a premises liability claim is that the hazard was “open and obvious.” In other words, the danger was so clear and obvious that the plaintiff had a duty to avoid it, even without being warned by the owner. In the Royal Caribbean case, the video showed that Mr. Anello knew he was by an open window because he had reached or leaned through where the glass would be before he picked up Chloe.
- The plaintiff contributed to their own injuries. In some states, a plaintiff’s financial recovery is limited by the extent to which they contributed to their own injuries. In this case, the court found that Mr. Anello’s actions were the sole cause of Chloe’s death.
The bottom line is... enjoy your vacation. Have fun, see the sights, have adventures.
But be careful, too.
Chances are that Mr. Anello believed he was just showing his little granddaughter a peek at the dock and whatever was out the window — he was probably talking and laughing with her and enjoying their time together. But lifting the toddler over the railing was a bad decision. Little ones are squirmy, and wet little ones (she was near a play area) are slippery. While he likely had only the best intentions, he made a mistake and paid a terrible price.
If you or a loved one were the victim of a cruise ship injury (or any vacation injury) that was caused by the ship or property owner’s negligence, there may be ways to recover the costs for your related expenses.