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Guest Opinion

Parasailing Industry Must Be Regulated


On August 15, Elizabeth Miskell and her husband Stephen decided to take a ride in a side-by-side parasail during their Florida vacation. Her harness malfunctioned and she fell 200 feet into the Atlantic Ocean off Pompano Beach. The parasailing boat captain found her floating face down in the water. The Broward medical examiner determined that she died from “asphyxia due to drowning and multiple blunt force injuries.’’ The Florida Legislature, however, must bear the much of the blame for this tragic and needless death.

For the past five years, a broad coalition of safety advocates and parasailing victims has urged the legislature to take action and regulate the state’s parasailing industry. Our goal is to prevent further deaths and injuries through legislation, rather than strive to compensate victims and their families via litigation. Our efforts are supported by the Professional Association of Parasail Operators (PAPO), a responsible trade organization that recognizes the need for safe, reasonable precautions to create a safe experience.

State Senator Gwen Margolis (D-Miami) will be leading the effort to enact the “Amber May Act” in the next legislative session. Named for the deceased daughter of our client, the law would require the owners of vessels engaged in commercial parasailing to carry liability insurance, establish minimum standards for equipment, and prohibit parasailing under unsafe conditions. There would also be criminal penalties for violations of the act.

That’s not a heavy burden for responsible parasailing operators to bear. This is particularly so in a state where the largest industry is resort tourism. There is no question that this type of regulation could save lives. An equipment inspection, for example, might have revealed the problems with Mrs. Miskell’s harness and prevented her death. Likewise in 2007 when Amber May White and her sister Crystal were parasailing off the same beach that took Mrs. Miskell’s life, such a regulation would likely have prevented the same tragedy. Passage of such minimum standards could also help the parasailing industry repair its badly tarnished image.

Presently, no state or federal laws specifically regulate commercial parasailing activities. The only requirements for operating a parasail business in Florida are a U.S. Coast Guard approval of a vessel and possession of a boating license.

Today, there is no state or federal agency responsible for verifying that the operator’s parasail, harness and tow lines are in good condition. Without regular inspections, an irresponsible operator can try to save money by using defective or worn-out equipment.

In addition, there is no requirement for operators to stop offering rides during high winds, stormy seas or thunderstorms, or other adverse conditions – a step that might have saved the life of Amber May White.

In 2007, 15-year-old Amber and her 17 year-old sister Crystal were parasailing off Pompano Beach in stormy weather. High winds pushed the parasailing boat close to the shore. The parasail’s winch stopped working and the tow line snapped. The girls slammed into a hotel roof at more than 50 miles per hour, then into the trees. Amber died and Crystal suffered severe head trauma. I represented their mother, Shannon Kraus, in the ensuing litigation. But what’s needed now is legislation, not litigation.

Today Shannon Kraus is among the growing number of Floridians who believe it’s time for the Legislature to regulate this industry and put the rogue operators out of business. In a recent CNN interview she said, “The people are simply fed up with this situation. The parasailing industry should be held accountable. No one else should be injured or killed. It’s time to take action.” To sign an electronic petition go to www.AmberMayLaw.com

Sometimes legislation is more important than litigation.

John Elliott Leighton is the managing partner of Leighton Law, P.A., a personal injury trial law firm with offices in Miami and Orlando. A board certified trial lawyer, his practice is focused on the representation of severely injured victims, primarily due to the failure to maintain reasonable or adequate security at commercial premises, Resort Torts™, medical malpractice and consumer product liability. He is the author of the book, “Litigating Premises Security Cases (West Publishing)” and Chairman of the Academy of Trial Advocacy.

South Florida Legal Guide 2012 Financial Edition

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