A federal judge has found "ample evidence" exists to allow a jury to decide whether Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. should bear responsibility for the overboard death of a 22-year-old passenger during a cruise from Port Everglades just before Christmas 2016.
Todd and Lisa Skokan filed suit against Royal Caribbean in U.S. District Court in Miami in December 2017, nearly a year after their son, Nathan Skokan, went overboard from the 12th-level deck of the Independence of the Seas shortly before 2 a.m. on the last day of a five-night family cruise. He disappeared on Dec. 22, 2016, as the ship was about 33 miles southeast of Key Largo.
The couple claims the cruise line was negligent because it served their son too much alcohol and failed to immediately begin search-and-rescue efforts after he was reported overboard.
They also charge the cruise line intentionally caused the family emotional distress by telling the ship and media that he had "intentionally" fallen overboard - causing them to believe he had committed suicide - even though multiple witnesses told ship officials that he slipped from a handrail while pretending to go overboard in response to a joking suggestion by another passenger.
In addition, the family, from Omaha, Neb., is charging Royal Caribbean with false imprisonment, saying the cruise line ordered them back to their stateroom during the search-and-rescue effort and posted a large guard to prevent them from leaving until the ship returned to port.
In its motion for summary judgment, Royal Caribbean asked U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga to dismiss all of the couple's claims. But the judge declined, ruling that the plaintiffs presented enough evidence to outweigh the cruise line's contention that the Skokans had no legal standing to bring their case.
In its motion, Royal Caribbean denied that Nathan Skokan's alcohol intake throughout the day was closely linked to his death, arguing he made an "intentional" and "conscious" decision to jump over the railing. But the Skokans presented "ample evidence" disputing the cruise line's argument, the judge ruled, including witnesses who observed him intoxicated before his death and who saw him lose his balance and accidentally go overboard.
"Nathan, while intoxicated, made his way to the ship's exterior 12th-floor deck with multiple passengers he had met on the cruise," the order described. "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, he fell off the side. ... One of the passengers testified that Nathan, seemingly intoxicated, lost his balance, slipped, and accidentally flipped over the ship's railing."
Attorneys for Royal Caribbean did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday. Michael Coyle, one of the Skokans' attorneys, said in a written statement: "The Skokan family is pleased the court overruled the motion for summary (judgment) and looks forward to proceeding with the case."
Altonaga's order cited that Nathan Skokan was served at least 30 ounces of alcohol in the 12 hours before he died, "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." His blood alcohol level was at least .256 percent, which an expert testified "presented an extreme risk of harm."
The judge also disagreed with the cruise line's contention that its search-and-rescue efforts "were reasonable as a matter of law."
"Even though eyewitnesses immediately notified cruise personnel that Nathan had fallen overboard form the 12th-floor deck," the cruise line "did not lower the rescue boats until two hours after being notified; did not have its Rescue Team 2 ready for over an hour and a half after Rescue Team 1 was ready; and placed its crew members approximately 100 feet above the water during the night, without additional use of search-and-rescue techniques," the order states.
Regarding the Skokans' claim that the cruise line intentionally inflicted emotional distress with announcements that their son "intentionally" fell overboard after witnesses stated otherwise, the judge ruled that only a jury could decide.
Finally, the judge ruled that "genuine disputes" exist regarding whether the Skokans were confined against their will during the search-and-rescue effort.
Royal Caribbean asserted it never told the Skokans they had to remain in the cabin, that the Skokans never asked to leave, and that the crew member posted outside their stateroom door was there for "assistance." The Skokans "are misconstruing 'hospitality for confinement,'" Royal Caribbean said.
However, the Skokans argued that the cruise line's "head of security" directed a security guard to escort the family to their cabin and "stay there."
"Once (Royal Caribbean) confined the Skokan family, a 'big,' 'tall,' and 'intimidating' guard was posted immediately outside the cabin's door," the ruling said, adding that Nathan Skokan's parents and one of his brothers "all testified the guard did not allow them to leave the cabin."
The Skokans are represented in the case by Omaha, Neb.-based Fraser Stryker PC LLO and Fort Lauderdale-based Law Offices of Paul M. Hoffman P.A.
Royal Caribbean is represented by Mase Mebane & Briggs P.A. of Miami.
A jury trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 13, according to court records.
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