Allan Kelley and Helaine Goodner, with Fowler White Burnett.
Allan Kelley and Helaine Goodner, with Fowler White Burnett. (J. Albert Diaz)

A federal jury awarded nothing to a cruise ship passenger who claimed $12 million in damages after falling twice in one week.

The trial focused on a key question: Did Edward Gehres’ fall on a Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line ship cause him to take a much more serious spill outside a North Carolina hotel two days later?

Gehres, a retired minister, had booked a cruise to the Bahamas with his wife through a third-party telemarketer. Because of a stroke several years ago, Gehres uses a cane or sometimes a walker to get around, and he said he requested a handicap-accessible room for the trip.

The cruise line told Gehres it never received the room request and that a handicap-accessible cabin would only be available for the first half of the trip. On the way back to Florida from the Bahamas, Gehres fell on the 8-inch step in the bathroom doorway.

A ship doctor and nurse treated Gehres for a bruised forearm, and the passenger and his wife disembarked the next day. They drove to South Carolina, stayed overnight, and then continued driving to Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

When they reached the hotel, Gehres’ wife placed his walker outside the passenger door for him. But when he stepped out of the car, he immediately fell backward and hit his head on a concrete planter.

Gehres’ attorneys, Michael Winkleman and Jason Margulies of Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman in Miami, argued the cruise line was responsible for both falls. They argued the ship’s doctor failed to diagnose a fractured wrist and properly treat it. Gehres fell in North Carolina because he couldn’t properly grip his walker, the plaintiffs argued, as the doctor hadn’t stabilized his wrist after the first fall.

“We presented the jury with a clear theory linking the two falls to the negligence of the cruise line,” Winkleman said.

Miami defense attorneys Allan Kelley and Helaine Goodner of Fowler White Burnett had to dismantle the argument piece by piece, focusing mostly on the far more serious fall. The hotel had not kept surveillance video of Gehres’ fall, so the lawyers had to reconstruct what happened through other evidence.

A witness who had also been outside the hotel testified Gehres never touched the walker before he fell. On cross-examination, Gehres’ wife also said the walker had not moved from where she left it for her husband. The defense attorneys argued any injuries to Gehres’ arm from the first fall had nothing to do with the second.

“The left wrist was not involved in any way in the second accident,” Kelley said.

The cruise line lawyers also argued that any issues with Gehres’ wrist should have turned up during the two-day road trip, when he and his wife took turns driving.

“We did get testimony from the plaintiff that he was able to move about and put weight on his right side after the accident on the ship, but he was not able to do that after the accident at the hotel,” Kelley said.

Plus, Gehres’ wife’s decision to leave the walker outside the passenger door and return to the driver’s side showed that she didn’t believe he needed any additional assistance, the defense argued.

The cruise line also successfully defended against claims that it should have provided Gehres with a handicap-accessible cabin for the entire trip. Gehres and his wife never had any direct communication with the cruise line in booking their vacation, the defense argued, and a cruise line representative testified the room request was never recorded.

“Their dealings were always with the timeshare promoter, and they received a confirming email from the timeshare promoter that did not mention the handicap-accessible cabin,” Kelley said.

After deliberating for four hours, the jury returned a defense verdict. The plaintiffs did not file an appeal within the time limit.

Throughout the four-day trial before U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg, Gehres used a walker or a wheelchair, and his lawyers presented evidence that the fall outside the hotel had a significant impact on his lifestyle, Kelley said.

“I think the jury was sympathetic,” he said. “They just did not believe what happened on the ship was the cause of his current condition.”

Case: Edward D. Gehres Jr. v. Cruise Operator Inc.

Case no.: 9:15-cv-81636-RLR

Description: Maritime personal injury

Filing date: Dec. 2, 2015

Verdict date: Dec. 15, 2016

Judge: U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg

Plaintiffs attorneys: Michael Winkleman and Jason Margulies, Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, Miami

Defense attorneys: Allan Kelley and Helaine Goodner, Fowler White Burnett, Miami

Verdict amount: Defense verdict