Every year, tens of thousands of people will take an Alaskan cruise and enjoy some of the most beautiful natural scenery in the world. A top attraction on nearly every Alaskan cruise is the magnificent Mendenhall Glacier. Although many people view glacier by land, others can explore the glacier by kayak. Last weekend, four Royal Caribbean passengers decided to rent kayaks to paddle along Mendenhall Lake while the cruise ship was in dock. Unfortunately, one never made it back to his cruise ship after his kayak overturned in the lake.
On July 15, 2012, 62 year-old Michael Fullerton of Texas was one of four family members that decided to rent kayaks along the Mendenhall Lake. As passengers of Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas, the four planned on returning to the cruise ship later that day. While kayaking, Fullerton reportedly became fatigued and was unable to continue paddling. According to Tongass National Forrest Supervisor Forrest Cole, the "group tied their kayaks together." At some point, the kayaks overturned. Three of the four family members survived, suffering only mild hypothermic injuries. Fullerton, however, drowned to death in the lake. According to Cole, it is unclear how the kayaks overturned.
To date, it is unknown whether any personal injury or wrongful death suit will be filed. Fullerton and other family members rented their kayaks from Alaska Boat And Kayak of Aute, Alaska. The owner, Sean Janes, said the group was given a safety briefing before going on their unguided tour of the lake. Part of the briefing included being "questioned about how much paddle experience they've had, and then...a safety briefing that talks about self-rescue, using the bilge pump, paddle float, wearing the PFD and spay skirt, and how to work together and paddle as a group," said Janes. A PFD is a personal flotation device. According to Janes, the group was also informed to stay at least 200 yards from the face.
To succeed on a personal injury or wrongful death case against the kayak company, Fullerton's family would have to prove the company was negligent in some manner and that this negligence caused or contributed to Fullerton's death. Absent evidence the company failed to properly instruct the Fullerton on how and where to operate the kayaks, failed to provide proper safety equipment, or failed to recognize weather or lake conditions made kayaking unsafe, such a suit would seem very difficult. Even if there was such evidence, the defense could argue Fullerton and/or his family should have known kayaking is an inherently dangerous activity and that they should have known a kayak overturning was an inherent risk. Depending upon the law that governs this incident, an "assumption of the risk" argument like this could defeat a claim even if the kayak company was negligent. In addition, the defense could argue Fullerton and/or his family members were negligent themselves in how they handled their kayaks and that this caused the kayaks to overturn. For all these reasons, a lawsuit against the kayak company could be a very daunting task. However, without more information, it is impossible to make a thorough evaluation.
KTOO News, Texas Man Dies In Mendehall Kayak Accident, July 16, 2012.