Agent Issues Attorney: Student travel risky business By Nadine Godwin / September 30, 2003 Share 1 -- NEW YORK -- Should you sell student trips? Maybe not, according to travel attorney Rodney Gould. Gould, a partner in Framingham, Mass.-based Rubin Hay & Gould, advised agents to give the matter a lot of thought before getting involved in selling such trips, especially those during spring break."It's a very, very high-risk business," he said.Gould has seen numerous lawsuits involving student travel. Many of these cases, he said, involved students who suffered permanent injuries or died while traveling -- often due to accidents that occurred while the teenagers or young adults were drunk.Although situations in these student cases are generally very serious, Gould said his clients win their cases [if they don't settle first] on the grounds they "cannot be liable when a kid drinks and accidentally kills himself."This also applies when the drinking students are under-age, he said.Gould is frequently retained by the Berkely Group to defend firms that buy their errors- and-omissions insurance from Berkely; in other cases, he is retained directly.Here are some typical cautionary tales involving student travel and alcohol.• One young man, after a round of drinking during spring break, concluded that his sixth-floor balcony would do as a urinal. The college-age student leaned over too far and fell to his death.This occurred about five years ago in Mexico, Gould said, and produced a lawsuit against the hotel, tour operator and retailer.Gould defended the latter two in a West Coast court and won the case, in a summary judgment, on the grounds the defendants were not responsible for a client's decision to drink and the accidental death that followed.• Gould made a similar point, and won on a motion to dismiss, in the case of the drunk college kid -- taking his spring break in the Caribbean -- who decided to dive into his hotel's pool off his fourth-floor balcony. He missed the pool and died.That case, filed against the tour operator, was resolved in Texas about a decade ago.• Another lawsuit, involving the death of a 17-year-old, has become a "leading case" of those involving students who drink and then accidentally kill themselves, Gould said.About seven years ago, the high-schooler joined a spring break trip to the Bahamas with classmates, but the trip catered to college students, and watered-down liquor was part of the package.The student joined a booze cruise, got drunk, jumped into the water for a swim and disappeared.Gould said the student's family "sued everyone including Continental," the airline involved. However, all defendants, which included the retailer, tour operator and ground handler represented by Gould, were relieved of liability on the grounds that the student drank when he joined a booze cruise.The case assumed more importance when the plaintiffs appealed the summary judgment that seemed to end the case, and the defendants also won on appeal.• Another 17-year-old was part of a group of kids who broke through a door to drink on the roof of their hotel in Mexico.After a fight with his girlfriend, the teenager stayed on the roof when all his friends left the area. He was found dead the next morning at the bottom of an air shaft.Gould, who defended the retailer and tour operator, said he could not get a summary judgment to dismiss because of what the judge saw as factual questions about whether the student had been "plied with liquor" and whether the door to the hotel roof was defective. The case, dating from about eight years ago in California, was settled out of court.• Not all incidents involving liquor have such deadly consequences. Gould recalled cases in which students joined educational trips in which the parents and their offspring understood and accepted that alcohol was forbidden. When the kids were caught drinking and bounced from the programs, some parents and/or kids sued.In one case, he said, a student, in London on an internship program, was tossed out for drinking.Also, while drunk, she had sex for the first time, and her parents and the girl, in their suit, blamed the tour operator for that, too, Gould said.That case, when first described in the June 17, 2002, issue of Travel Weekly, was still pending in New York. It has since been thrown out.• In another New York case, which dragged on for five years, Gould said, a high schooler attended an enrichment program in Oxford, England, also having agreed to the no-drinking rule.The tour operator found the kid staggeringly drunk, took him to the dorm for the night and tossed him out of the program the next day.The parents sued, arguing the operator should have kept the boy out of the pubs and should have warned him that cider in a pub contains alcohol.They also accused the operator of "false imprisonment" for requiring the student to stay in the dorm all night, although, as Gould observed, he was so drunk that he might have been killed by a car if left unattended. The case was settled about two years ago for "a few hundred dollars," he said.• In another less-deadly case, an injured student returned from a Mexico trip and sued her travel agency, the tour operator and American Express [because the trip was paid for with an American Express card], blaming all of them for her fall from a hotel balcony.In New York courts a few months ago, she sought to hold the defendants liable for a balcony railing that she said was too low for safety.Gould defended the agent and tour operator, but this suit was unusual, he said, because he convinced the plaintiff's attorney to drop the case.Gould had discovered -- and informed the plaintiff's attorney -- that the student fell when she was trying to climb from her balcony to the balcony outside a friend's room.It was never made clear if the student who tried climbing from balcony to balcony had been drinking, Gould said, adding that he doubted many would try the feat without some alcoholic fortification.For those who are still determined to sell student travel, Gould advised the following:• Always use a release, to be signed by students or by parents when kids are under age, that "absolves you of any liability for anything."It doesn't cost much, he said, "to get a good three-sentence release."• Have errors-and-omissions insurance. When there are lawsuits, Gould said, they are often serious -- as evidenced by the case histories above.You can reach the journalist who wrote this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.