U.S. Court of Appeals Reverses Dismissal of Wrongful Death Case for High School Student Who Died on a Vacation Excursion

Lisa Tam Chung, a Texas high school senior, bought a vacation package through the defendant, StudentCity.com Inc., for a trip to Cancun, Mexico. She added an optional snorkeling excursion as part of her package.

This unfortunate trip had a tragic ending when the snorkeling catamaran hit a coral reef and began to take on water. The crew of the boat was not able to help passengers who were on the boat. Lisa and her friend put on life preservers and tried to reach safety by grabbing a rope that extended between the catamaran and a small private vessel. Their efforts to reach safety failed when they were pulled under water. Lisa suffered heart failure and died. Her friend, Loren, suffered serious injuries, but she survived.

StudentCity is a Delaware corporation that has its principal place of business in Massachusetts. It sells vacation packages to students, including those traveling for spring break or to celebrate graduations.

Lisa’s family, through her parents, brought a wrongful death lawsuit against StudentCity. During the discovery phase of the case, the U.S. District Court, with the agreement of the parties, limited pretrial discovery to specific issues.

The district court judge ultimately granted summary judgment in favor of StudentCity on its motion. The Chung family appealed to the United States Court of Appeals, which reversed, holding that because the district court entered summary judgment on an issue not briefed and on which discovery had not been allowed, the district court’s shift in focus exceeded its agreed upon authority.

Following an investigation into this tragic event, the harbormaster concluded that the “concentration of passengers in the boat” caused considerable imbalance, which most likely led the catamaran to collide with the coral reef.

In this case, the Chung family’s principal argument was that the district court erred in premising its summary judgment decision on the perceived absence of causation – an issue that was neither argued by StudentCity nor open to discovery. Because StudentCity had a duty to supervise third-party service suppliers, in this case the snorkeling excursion, that issue still needed to be considered by a factfinder. Here the plaintiffs were not given a chance to conduct any discovery on the causation issue. For reasons stated, the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit vacated the judgment of the district court and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. The First District of the U.S. Court of Appeals includes the district courts in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico and Rhode Island.

Chung v. StudentCity.com, Inc., No. 16-1765, U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (April 14, 2017).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling wrongful death cases, catastrophic injury cases, traumatic brain injury cases and truck accident cases for individuals and families who have been injured, harmed or killed by the negligence of another for more than 40 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Bridgeview, Palos Heights, Oak Forest, Arlington Heights, Berwyn, Maywood, River Grove, Rolling Meadows, Tinley Park, South Chicago Heights, South Barrington, Park Forest, Palatine, Justice, LaGrange, Chicago Ridge, Chicago (Archer Heights, Little Village, Brighton Park, Garfield Park, Polish Village, Humboldt Park, North Center, Clybourn Corridor, Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village, Goose Island, Old Town, Lakeview, Edgewater, Uptown), Highland Park, Highwood and Glencoe, Ill.

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