An Alabama jury ruled last week that a Montgomery, AL hotel and its manager must pay $3.8 million in the drowning death of a 19-year-old football player on its premises.
Derrick Marshall had proven himself as an outstanding high school receiver and was getting ready to start a promising career on the Alabama State University football team. But that promising future was cut short when Marshall drowned in the pool in the former King’s Inn hotel on July 29, 2007.
The pool where Marshall drowned had been closed 11 days earlier by county health officials due to water turbidity (i.e. cloudiness or smokiness in the water, indicating some kind of bacteria or other contaminant.) According to the suit, even though the pool was shut down, workers at the hotel told Marshall and his party, attending a family reunion, that they could use the pool. According to witnesses, maintenance workers even bent the chain the county had used to close the pool, and then propped the door open to allow easier access to the contaminated pool for guests.
Marshall, who was, according to his mother, an accomplished swimmer, disappeared into the deep end of the pool. Due to the pool water’s turbidity, rescuers were unable to find Marshall’s body for about 12 minutes in the cloudy water. EMS workers did manage to finally pull him from the pool and revive him. But Marshall’s story was not slated for a happy ending. He was hospitalized and lingered in a vegetative state for three months before dying in November 2007 at just age 20.
The hotel claimed that they had not provided access to the contaminated pool and that Marshall could not swim and therefore was reckless in going into the deep end. But hotel workers backed up the claim that yes, maintenance workers had allowed guests to use the pool that day. And a pool drowning expert, noting again that Marshall was a strong swimmer, posited that Marshall had suffered from a “laryngospasm” (an involuntary contraction that causes the windpipe to shut down to prevent water rushing into the lungs, which can result in unconsciousness), which caused him to pass out. Further, the hotel had no rescue equipment or procedures in place in case of an accident.
Ultimately the jury deliberated only 39 minutes at the close of the seven day trial before finding the hotel and its manager, Tamara Mitchell, liable for negligence and wrongful death. Mitchell, though not on the premises at the time, was found guilty because it was ruled that she was directly responsible for the actions of her staff.
In his closing argument, plaintiff’s attorney Josh Wright asked the jury to award compensatory damages from the time of injury to the time of death, as well as punitives for Marshall’s wrongful death. The jury awarded $766,000 in compensatory damages and $3 million in punitive damages.
“We instructed them they would have the ability to award punitives for negligent conduct, and to send a message and deter the conduct of this defendant and other similarly situated public pool operators,” Wright said.
That Alabama jury did send a powerful message to premises operators who would be neglectful of the safety of guests on their premises. If you or anyone you know has been the victim of an accident in a public place or on commercial property, call MLN Law at 404-531-9700 to schedule a free consultation.