October 08, 2020 Top Story

Court Affirms Hotel Is Not Responsible for Snorkeling Death

Decision provides lessons for hospitality industry in a COVID-19 world

By Ashlee E. Hamilton

At a time when the hospitality industry is on high alert, a U.S. court of appeals has held that a resort guest’s drowning was not caused by any breach of duty of care owed by the hotel. In Baum-Holland v. Hilton El Con Management, LLC, the plaintiffs accused a hotel of negligence after a guest died while snorkeling. When presented with a factual dispute regarding the patron’s cause of death and a signed release of liability by the decedent, the court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the hotel. While agreeing with the court’s decision, ABA Section of Litigation leaders advise the hospitality industry to release liability and warn patrons as it reopens amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The doctor was snorkeling off the coast of a deserted island near their resort in Puerto Rico

The doctor was snorkeling off the coast of a deserted island near their resort in Puerto Rico

Credit: SHansche | iStockphoto by Getty Images

Tragedy in Paradise

A doctor and his family were vacationing at a resort in Puerto Rico. While snorkeling near a small uninhabited island east of Puerto Rico, the doctor suddenly stopped swimming and became unresponsive. The doctor’s family members, employees of the resort, and other guests administered CPR, but he was pronounced dead upon arriving at the local hospital.

The doctor’s family sued the resort in the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico alleging failure to warn of dangerous sea conditions, failure to give timely and appropriate aid, and failure to provide safety gear. On the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the cause of the doctor’s death was disputed. The plaintiffs claimed that he drowned based on evidence of fluid in his sphenoid sinus and lack of oxygenation. But other evidence suggested that, based on his obesity, untreated hypertension, and atherosclerosis, the doctor suffered a heart attack while snorkeling.

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