Three years ago today, 6-year-old Qwentyn Hunter was on a cruise with his parents and two older siblings heading back to Miami from Cozumel. Before dinner, Qwentyn and his brother asked their dad, Caselle Hunter, to take them up to the hot tub. He happily agreed.
While on the pool deck, however, Caselle bumped into a church friend and became distracted. Before he could fully process what was going on, he heard another passenger splash into the water and pull out his son's limp body. Tragically, Qwentyn, an aspiring child model from Orlando, died onboard the ship.
Just a few days shy of the anniversary of their son's death, the Hunters filed a federal lawsuit against Carnival on Tuesday, saying the company acted negligently in failing to provide lifeguards and adequate medical care that might have saved Qwentyn's life.
The Hunters were featured in a New Times cover story last month about the failure of most major cruise lines to employ lifeguards — and the drownings that often follow. Attorneys who represent cruise ship passengers say the industry, which is protected by an archaic 1920 law called the Death on the High Seas Act, cares more about its bottom line than the safety of guests.
The Hunters' lawsuit, filed by maritime attorney Michael Winkleman, calls Carnival's conduct "outrageous" and says the decision not to employ lifeguards was "calculated to save Carnival money while greatly increasing the risk to its passengers."
"Numerous children have died or been grievously injured recently onboard cruise ships due to drowning or near drowning prior to this incident, yet Carnival does not even spend a single penny on utilizing lifeguards onboard its ships to prevent these tragedies," the suit says.
Indeed, incidents of kids drowning in cruise ship pools are happening with increased frequency. Just this past weekend, a 2-year-old child had to be hospitalized after nearly drowning on another Carnival cruise ship, the Splendor.
Carnival, which hasn't responded to the Hunters' complaint in court, told New Times it had not reviewed the lawsuit and couldn't comment. Company spokesman Roger Frizzell argued last month, though, that the buck stops with children's caregivers.
"Our perspective is that close parental supervision is the best practice to ensure pool safety. This is a similar policy to most hotels and resorts," he wrote.
Caselle Hunter has said that he ultimately accepts responsibility for what happened to his son but that he hopes to prevent the needless deaths of other children on cruise ships. His wife, Tashara, told New Times the only intention in filing a lawsuit would be to encourage cruise lines to employ water safety measures such as lifeguards.
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"We were never looking for monetary gain, because no amount of money can bring our son back," Tashara said. "But the fact of putting lifeguards on there, on their ships to prevent someone else going through what we experienced, was the only request we had."
Winkleman, who has filed three suits this year on behalf of parents whose children drowned on cruises, says the failure by cruise lines to take action is unforgivable.
"I hope this lawsuit shines a much-needed light on the fact that cruise lines continue to refuse to put lifeguards on ships despite nearly a dozen children dying since Qwentyn died," he says.
After Qwentyn's death, his parents started the Qwentyn Hunter Luv Foundation, which provides support to grieving families and helps coordinate swimming lessons for children. They have vowed to avoid cruising until lifeguards are placed on ships.