On July 7th 2019, the Wiegand family suffered the worst nightmare imaginable for any parents. While their ship, Royal Caribbean International’s Freedom of the Seas, was docked in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Wiegand’s 18-month-old daughter, Chloe, fell from the 11th deck onto the concrete pier and died.
Prior to the fall, the child was in a clear-glass, enclosed children’s play space with her maternal grandfather, Salvatore Aiello. In the moments leading up to Chloe’s death, Aiello, was holding her on a railing. At that time, he thought it was backed by a glass pane. Chloe leaned forward to bang on the window and toppled out of an open window panel. She fell an estimated 150 feet from one of the ship’s highest decks, hitting an awning before landing on the concrete dock below and dying on impact.
The Wiegand family has chosen to take Royal Caribbean to court over the loss of their daughter and publicly voiced their questions regarding the safety and security measures taken aboard the vessel in question. Both Royal Caribbean and the Wiegand family acknowledge that this was a horrible accident. However, the larger question remaining is whether safety measures could have been, or should have been put in place.
Falling Off Cruise Ships and the Negligence Standard
In recent years, the number of people who take cruises has increased significantly. An astounding 28.5 million people took a cruise in 2018 alone. Since the year 2000, however, only about 300 people have fallen overboard on cruise ships. While that number sounds large, statistically it’s extremely rare. Yet despite advances in technology, active premises on a cruise ship are not without danger.
Noted maritime lawyer Jim Walker has led the discussion on this issue whether negligence should be found on the part of Royal Caribbean. In order for the cruise line to be legally liable for the child’s death, the Wiegands must prove that the cruise line acted unreasonably.
The area on Freedom of the Seas that Chloe fell from is known as the “H2O Zone” of the ship where the open window apparently ventilated the area. Although choosing to put an open window in the kids play area 11 stories off the ground of a cruise ship seems concerning, the Wiegands must prove that the cruise line knew or should have known of the specific danger on its ship. This is generally a difficult task to accomplish without evidence of prior incidents or proof.
The Human Factor
The media has put a focus on the actions of the grandfather bringing the child up to the window in the play area. After the tragedy, stories began emerging noting that the grandfather was dangling the child through the open window. Public outcries descended on the grandfather for the death of the child. According to Elmer Roman, the secretary of public safety for the government of Puerto Rico, the grandfather is currently under investigation for homicide.
Michael Winkleman, acting as the Wiegand family attorney, has made efforts to remove the blame from the grandfather. He has made comments publicly that the window should not have been open in the first place. In turn, the Wiegands have made it clear they plan on filing a lawsuit against Royal Caribbean. Such a lawsuit follows a difficult standard for proving liability against Royal Caribbean.
Determining Liability: Passenger Access
Winkleman noted that the Freedom of the Seas ship, which made its maiden voyage in 2006, is older. Among cruise ships, none of the newer vessels have similar windows that can be opened in the same way. Because passengers can open the windows on older vessels, this is a key point in determining liability in this case. Winkleman is hoping to gain access to the ship and to surveillance footage of the incident. From the video, it can be learned who and when the window was opened. If ventilation was the reason for an open window, arguably a fan could have accomplished the same goal.
At present, the family is maintaining their position that the grandfather was not at fault. He was unaware that with a wall of windows, there was one hidden hole with no pane of glass. Experts are still divided on whether this is a premises liability or a human factors case. The family may be able to learn through discovery how many incidents involving injuries related to windows have occurred in the past. With that information, they will seek to know how many incidents have occurred on Royal Caribbean cruise ships. More importantly, there may be an examination as to whether Royal Caribbean could have implemented more safety precautions that could have prevented this incident.