Royal Caribbean says man went overboard ‘intentionally.’ His Omaha parents say he was served too many drinks

Royal Caribbean says man went overboard ‘intentionally.’ His Omaha parents say he was served too many drinks
The Associated Press

A jury will decide whether Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. should bear responsibility for the death of a 22-year-old Omahan who went overboard on a cruise just before Christmas 2016.

Todd and Lisa Skokan filed a lawsuit against Royal Caribbean in U.S. District Court in Miami in December 2017. The suit came nearly a year after their 22-year-old son, Nathaniel Skokan, who had attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, went overboard from the 12th-level deck of the Independence of the Seas shortly before 2 a.m. on the last day of a five-night family cruise.

He disappeared on Dec. 22, 2016, as the ship was about 33 miles southeast of Key Largo, Florida.

On Thursday, a federal judge found “ample evidence” exists to allow a jury to decide whether Royal Caribbean Cruises is responsible.

The Skokans allege the cruise line was negligent because it served their son too much alcohol and failed to immediately begin search-and-rescue efforts after he was reported overboard.

They also say the cruise line deliberately caused the family emotional distress by telling the ship and media that he had “intentionally” fallen overboard — causing them to believe he had committed suicide — even though multiple witnesses told ship officials that he slipped from a handrail while pretending to go overboard in response to a joking suggestion by another passenger.

In addition, the family is accusing Royal Caribbean of false imprisonment, saying the cruise line ordered them back to their stateroom during the search-and-rescue effort and posted a large guard to prevent them from leaving until the ship returned to port.

In its motion for summary judgment, Royal Caribbean asked U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga to dismiss all of the couple’s claims. But the judge declined, ruling that the plaintiffs presented enough evidence to outweigh the cruise line’s contention that the Skokans had no legal standing to bring their case.

Skokan graduated from Westside High School in 2013, where he was active in tennis and DECA. He was a marketing major at UNL and a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, where his parents have established a scholarship in his name.

The Skokans, in an interview Friday, described their son as an intelligent, fun-loving people person who liked to prank his friends to get a laugh.

“He was always telling people to have fun in life and not take yourself so seriously,” Lisa Skokan said.

Earlier in 2016, Lisa lost her sister and mom, and Nathaniel took a semester off from school to comfort her and help sort out her family’s estate. The family went on the Christmastime Mexican cruise to get away from the stress and sadness. It was Nathaniel’s second time on a cruise ship.

“We have taken that type of vacation every year,” Todd Skokan said Friday. “It wasn’t something new for our family.”

In its motion, Royal Caribbean denied that Nathaniel Skokan’s alcohol intake throughout the day was closely linked to his death, arguing he made an “intentional” and “conscious” decision to jump over the railing. But the Skokans presented “ample evidence” disputing the cruise line’s argument, the judge ruled, including witnesses who observed him intoxicated before his death and who saw him lose his balance and accidentally go overboard.

“Nathan, while intoxicated, made his way to the ship’s exterior 12th-floor deck with multiple passengers he had met on the cruise,” the order described. “One of those passengers jokingly suggested they should jump overboard, pointing to the handrail. In turn, Nathan pretended to throw himself up on the handrail, but when he went to sit on the handrail, he fell off the side. … One of the passengers testified that Nathan, seemingly intoxicated, lost his balance, slipped and accidentally flipped over the ship’s railing.”

Attorneys for Royal Caribbean did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday. Michael Coyle, one of the Skokans’ attorneys, said in a written statement: “The Skokan family is pleased the court overruled the motion for summary (judgment) and looks forward to proceeding with the case.”

Judge Altonaga’s order said Nathaniel Skokan was served at least 30 ounces of alcohol in the 12 hours before he died, “including six full-sized martinis at the martini-making class earlier in the day and at least seven vodkas, two vodkas mixed with Red Bull, and one cognac.” His blood alcohol level was at least 0.256 percent, which an expert testified “presented an extreme risk of harm.”

The judge also disagreed with the cruise line’s contention that its search-and-rescue efforts “were reasonable as a matter of law.”

“Even though eyewitnesses immediately notified cruise personnel that Nathan had fallen overboard from the 12th-floor deck,” the cruise line “did not lower the rescue boats until two hours after being notified; did not have its Rescue Team 2 ready for over an hour and a half after Rescue Team 1 was ready; and placed its crew members approximately 100 feet above the water during the night, without additional use of search-and-rescue techniques,” the order states.

Regarding the Skokans’ claim that the cruise line intentionally inflicted emotional distress with announcements that their son “intentionally” fell overboard after witnesses stated otherwise, the judge ruled that only a jury could decide.

Finally, the judge ruled that “genuine disputes” exist regarding whether the Skokans were confined against their will during the search-and-rescue effort.

“Our family’s goal is to hold the cruise line accountable and show the true facts surrounding Nathaniel’s death,” the family said in a statement. “The only other thing we would like, too, is that no other family would go through this kind of tragedy.”

Royal Caribbean said it never told the Skokans that they had to remain in the cabin, that the Skokans never asked to leave and that the crew member posted outside their stateroom door was there for “assistance.” The Skokans “are misconstruing ‘hospitality for confinement,’ ” Royal Caribbean said.

However, the Skokans argued that the cruise line’s “head of security” directed a security guard to escort the family to their cabin and “stay there.”

“Once (Royal Caribbean) confined the Skokan family, a ‘big,’ ‘tall,’ and ‘intimidating’ guard was posted immediately outside the cabin’s door,” the ruling said, adding that Nathaniel Skokan’s parents and one of his brothers “all testified the guard did not allow them to leave the cabin.”

The Skokans are represented in the case by Omaha-based Fraser Stryker PC and the Fort Lauderdale-based law offices of Paul M. Hoffman.

Royal Caribbean is represented by Mase Mebane & Briggs of Miami.

A jury trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 13, according to court records.

World-Herald staff writer Chris Peters contributed to this report.

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