A newlywed couple from California filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit accusing a Hawaiian tour company of abandoning them at sea during a snorkeling excursion.
Elizabeth Webster and Alexander Burckle were celebrating their honeymoon in Maui in September 2021 when they booked a five-hour snorkeling tour with Sail Maui. After spending about an hour at the first diving spot, the couple attempted to swim back to their boat only to realize it was sailing away, leaving them alone and stranded half a mile from land.
According to a federal lawsuit filed last month, Webster and Burckle were both experienced snorkelers when they set out among a group of 44 total passengers to participate in Sail Maui’s “Lanai Coast Snorkel Tour” on the morning of Sept. 23, 2021. The group sailed for approximately 45 minutes before reaching the first location where all 44 passengers went into the calm water and were instructed to return to the boat in approximately 45 minutes to an hour.
About an hour later, the water had become more turbulent as the couple attempted to swim back to the boat, the complaint states. They swam for about 15 minutes but appeared to be making no progress in reaching the vessel as the water continued to get more choppy with waves of approximately 2 to 4 feet.
“[A]fter another 15 minutes (approx.) of aggressive swimming, the Vessel was clearly farther from Plaintiffs than it was at the last time they had checked,” the document states. “The water was now 30-40 feet deep. Plaintiffs now feared that they would not be able to return to the Vessel under their own power and Plaintiffs began signaling distress and calling for help in the direction of the Vessel.”
Back at the boat, one of the crew members, an in-water lifeguard, was charged with corralling the passengers back onboard before departure, per the complaint.
One of the passengers told the Coast Guard that she notified the crew that Webster and Burckle were still out in the water and were further out than her before she came back in, “but the crew member assured her Plaintiffs were already accounted for,” the document states.
The crew allegedly performed three head counts of passengers, counting only 42 passengers twice before erroneously counting 44 passengers on the third tally before departing the location, according to the lawsuit. The other passengers told the Coast Guard that the captain did not make people hold still during the head counts, the suit states.
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The couple alleged that they continued swimming toward the boat and making distress signals, but soon found themselves in much deeper water with waves reaching as high as 8 feet as they remained about a half mile from the shore of Lanai, a small island off the coast of Maui.
“Plaintiffs were beginning to panic and were struggling to swim in the ocean conditions. They feared that drowning was imminent,” the lawsuit states. “Plaintiffs realized the Vessel had left them and was not coming back for them, and they decided that their only option for survival at that point was to return to shore. Plaintiffs were extremely fearful and nervous about the decision because they were told in the safety briefing explicitly not to swim to Lanai and that shallow reefs were in the area.”
The couple says they reached the shore in about 30 minutes and were “fatigued and dehydrated.” They were eventually rescued by a local couple who let them use their cellphone to call the tour company. When Webster called, the suit says that the company still had not realized they were missing from their group. The local residents then gave Webster and Burckle a ride to a ferry on the other side of the island which they took back to Maui.
The couple is seeking $5 million in damages, accusing Sail Maui of gross negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Sail Maui did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment from Law&Crime.
Read the lawsuit below.
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