INDUSTRY NEWS

Sandals Resorts Sued for Entrapment

By Rebecca Robledo | 5.27.2011

Surviving relatives of an entrapment victim have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Sandals Resorts International and several manufacturers.

Last December, 33-year-old John Van Hoy Jr., a former all-state baseball player who could bench press 300 pounds, was in an inground spa at the Sandals Royal Bahamian in Nassau when he became entrapped against the drain and submerged in approximately 3 feet of water.

His fiance, Nicole Cleaveland, saw him move downward into the water and not resurface. When she realized he was stuck, she yelled for help and leaped into the spa fully clothed.

“Upon hearing her calls, several heroic guests jumped in the hot tub, but collectively could not pull John Van Hoy Jr. from the bottom suction outlet drain cover/grate and/or sump,” the complaint stated.

The suit also alleges that the Sandals staff was less helpful. “Nicole Cleaveland then sought the help of a Royal Bahamian employee who ignored her pleas for help and walked away,” the complaint noted.

The lawsuit paints a gruesome picture. With several people pulling on Van Hoy’s limbs and body, one person braced his legs on a spa wall, backed against the entrapped man and, in what the complaint described as a leg-press position, rolled Van Hoy off the drain. The guests spent the next 45 to 55 minutes attempting to resuscitate Van Hoy before paramedics arrived.

Van Hoy was pronounced dead at the hospital early the next morning.

In May, Van Hoy’s family filed suit against Sandals and its marketing representative, Unique Vacations, along with several manufacturers and distributors. The defendants included A.O. Smith Corp., Hayward Industries, Pentair Water Pool and Spa and its subsidiary, Sta-Rite. Pool and spa products distributor SCP also was named, as well as Hospitality Purveyors for selling the components of the circulation system to Sandals Royal Bahamian.

The plaintiffs are suing Sandals for negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment.

Court documents claimed a variety of unsafe conditions were in place that caused the accident. First, the spa had a single-drain system, unsafe drain covers and no SVRS or other form of entrapment protection. In addition, the drain cover was not properly fastened and the system was pushing water at a rate higher than 1.5 feet per second (the legal limit in Florida) through the drain. Sandals also had no shut-off switch for the system and failed to make the pump room accessible so that equipment could be quickly disabled, according to the filing.

The complaint also stated that Sandals officials should have known about the dangers of entrapment and taken measures to safeguard their spa, considering the attention the issue has been given by industry organizations and press, and the fact that an entrapment death occurred in 2000 at a nearby resort.

Finally, the suit alleged that once the incident occurred, employees interrogated Cleaveland and insinuated that she or Van Hoy somehow caused the incident. Hotel staff restricted her to her room, assigning an employee to stand outside the door to ensure she didn’t leave. “Sandals and/or Unique even attempted to remove the phone from her room to prevent contact with family, friends and local assistance,” the complaint read.

Though Sandals is based in Jamaica, the suit claims that the Van Hoy family can sue in Florida because the resort company does extensive business there and the other defendants are based in the United States.

This might enable the plaintiffs to bolster their case by referring to U.S. standards and laws, observed Mark Stapke, an attorney not involved with the suit, but who specializes in cases concerning construction.

“The standard of care … is governed by reasonableness,” said the partner at Michelman & Robinson in Los Angeles. “If you cross into an intersection on a red light, you’ve violated the law. But if you go through an uncontrolled intersection without looking both ways, then that [invokes] a standard of reasonableness. There’s not a statute saying you can’t do it; it’s a question of what a reasonable person would have done under the circumstances.”

If it is established that the parties acted unreasonably, he added, they could be deemed negligent. “What they would say is that anybody in the U.S. who got plans and specifications … anybody who had an overall view of the construction of the spa and determined that it did not comply with applicable U.S. standards, is arguably acting in a negligent fashion because they’re participating in the construction of a dangerous spa.”

In many cases such as this, he added, suppliers will point out that they provided the product and had no idea or control over how it was used.

The manufacturers and distributors were charged with liability and negligence. The suit accused the manufacturers of making defective products, with the pump not having an SVRS or similar device to shut it off in case of entrapment, and the cover not being manufactured according to ASME/ANSI A112.19.8.

Additionally, the suit stated that the producers should have provided proper warning about the hazards of entrapment and provided instruction on how to entrapment-proof a pool or spa, including the need to make sure the drain cover remains attached.

The distributors were accused of selling dangerous products and not properly warning purchasers about the possibility of entrapment.

Sandals and the pool- and spa-related firms chose not to comment for this story, citing ongoing litigation.

The law firm representing the plaintiffs, Miami-based Brais and Associates, described the incident in its blog in January, ostensibly to reach out to potential witnesses. In April, Sandals filed a suit against Brais and Associates and two of its attorneys, seeking $180 million for damages to its reputation. The corporation took issue with the firm’s claims that Sandals staff was not willing to help and hadn’t been trained to perform CPR.

“The statements were made with malicious intent to turn the public and potential jurors against Sandals to the benefit and pecuniary gain of the Defendants,” it stated in a court document.

Brais’ counsel called the lawsuit frivolous and an attempt to moderate negative publicity that would result from a wrongful death lawsuit.

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