In a 2010 case, the appellate court considered whether summary judgment was proper in a wrongful death lawsuit. The case arose when a man drowned while a floating dock was being installed at property owned by Walt Disney World. He was employed by a water sports concession located at a Disney resort. His company contracted with a plumbing and heating company to install a floating dock system to facilitate personal watercraft rentals.
The water sports concession wasn’t familiar with assembly of a floating dock system. Accordingly, a plumbing company employee agreed to oversee the installation and show the water sports employees how to do it.
The man agreed to have delivery of certain sections to the resort. The entire dock could have been assembled on dry land, but not all of the pieces arrived at the same time. The plumbing supervisor and water sports employees assembled those parts that were available. A Disney ferry put it out on the lake. The plumbing supervisor’s plan was to add the two missing sections with a special tool that wouldn’t require anybody to go in the water.
The plan did not work out because the special tool was on back order when the two pieces arrived. The plumbing supervisor returned to the resort knowing somebody would have to complete the installation by swimming underwater and connecting the pieces while holding his or her breath for two minutes. There was a known safety issue in swimming under a 70ft. by 15 1/2 ft. floating dock.
Later it would be unclear whether the plumbing supervisor or the water sports employer had given the go-ahead. The employee that died felt pressure to complete the dock. It was March and the water was cold. The other men on the dock told the employee they would knock on the dock to tell him when to surface when the coupler was secured. Two couplers were secured this way. Another man got in the water to help.
What happened next was subject to dispute. The man who was helping saw the employee swimming near him then swimming away. When he got out of the water, he couldn’t see the employee. Others would explain that after the coupler was connected, the men knocked but the employee did not surface. The men swam around the dock looking for the employee.
Rescue personnel found the employee’s body. In spite of resuscitation efforts, the man did not survive.
The employee’s personal representatives filed suit, claiming negligence by several of those involved with the installation. They argued that the installation was not reasonably or safely conducted. They argued that an inexperienced employee should not have been sent underwater to engage in a dangerous activity.
During discovery, the personal representatives presented expert witnesses who criticized the lack of a permit, use of inexperienced workers without SCUBA equipment, lack of supervision and more. One marine engineering expert testified a permit was needed for the installation.
An autopsy showed that the cause of death was drowning. However, it also presented findings of sarcoidosis. This meant that the deceased had experienced abnormally high blood pressure. The medical examiner also speculated that the deceased had become hypoxic underwater, making it more likely that he would have an arrhythmia.
The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiffs’ case failed because of lack of causation and foreseeability, based on the medical examiner’s testimony.
Two days before the summary judgment hearing, the plaintiffs served the defendants with the medical examiner’s clarification that it was his opinion the employee became hypoxic because he held his breath underwater. The examiner also opined that the sole cause of hypoxia was the employee holding his breath and that the hypoxia induced a cardiac arrhythmia that caused the employee’s drowning. He further opined that if the employee had been above water and experienced the same physical changes, the employee would have survived.
The trial court, however, ruled that the cause of death was the undetected sarcoidosis. The plaintiff appealed. The appellate court explained that if reasonable people could differ on whether the facts established proximate causation, the issue should go to the fact-finder to determine.
There is no liability for freak accidents. However, in this case, the appellate court found that there was no freak accident. The medical evidence of the medical examiner did not support summary judgment. The appellate court reversed the lower court.
If a loved one is killed as a result of somebody else’s negligence, contact the experienced Florida wrongful death attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.
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