Surviving relatives of an entrapment victim have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Sandals Resorts International and several manufacturers.
Last December, 33-year-old John Van Hoy Jr., a former all-state
baseball player who could bench press 300 pounds, was in an
inground spa at the Sandals Royal Bahamian in Nassau when he became
entrapped against the drain and submerged in approximately 3 feet
His fiance, Nicole Cleaveland, saw him move downward into the water
and not resurface. When she realized he was stuck, she yelled for
help and leaped into the spa fully clothed.
“Upon hearing her calls, several heroic guests jumped in the
hot tub, but collectively could not pull John Van Hoy Jr. from the
bottom suction outlet drain cover/grate and/or sump,” the
The suit also alleges that the Sandals staff was less helpful.
“Nicole Cleaveland then sought the help of a Royal Bahamian
employee who ignored her pleas for help and walked away,” the
The lawsuit paints a gruesome picture. With several people pulling
on Van Hoy’s limbs and body, one person braced his legs on a
spa wall, backed against the entrapped man and, in what the
complaint described as a leg-press position, rolled Van Hoy off the
drain. The guests spent the next 45 to 55 minutes attempting to
resuscitate Van Hoy before paramedics arrived.
Van Hoy was pronounced dead at the hospital early the next morning.
In May, Van Hoy’s family filed suit against Sandals and its
marketing representative, Unique Vacations, along with several
manufacturers and distributors. The defendants included A.O. Smith
Corp., Hayward Industries, Pentair Water Pool and Spa and its
subsidiary, Sta-Rite. Pool and spa products distributor SCP also
was named, as well as Hospitality Purveyors for selling the
components of the circulation system to Sandals Royal Bahamian.
The plaintiffs are suing Sandals for negligence, intentional
infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional
distress and false imprisonment.
Court documents claimed a variety of unsafe conditions were in
place that caused the accident. First, the spa had a single-drain
system, unsafe drain covers and no SVRS or other form of entrapment
protection. In addition, the drain cover was not properly fastened
and the system was pushing water at a rate higher than 1.5 feet per
second (the legal limit in Florida) through the drain. Sandals also
had no shut-off switch for the system and failed to make the pump
room accessible so that equipment could be quickly disabled,
according to the filing.
The complaint also stated that Sandals officials should have known
about the dangers of entrapment and taken measures to safeguard
their spa, considering the attention the issue has been given by
industry organizations and press, and the fact that an entrapment
death occurred in 2000 at a nearby resort.
Finally, the suit alleged that once the incident occurred,
employees interrogated Cleaveland and insinuated that she or Van
Hoy somehow caused the incident. Hotel staff restricted her to her
room, assigning an employee to stand outside the door to ensure she
didn’t leave. “Sandals and/or Unique even attempted to
remove the phone from her room to prevent contact with family,
friends and local assistance,” the complaint read.
Though Sandals is based in Jamaica, the suit claims that the Van
Hoy family can sue in Florida because the resort company does
extensive business there and the other defendants are based in the
This might enable the plaintiffs to bolster their case by referring
to U.S. standards and laws, observed Mark Stapke, an attorney not
involved with the suit, but who specializes in cases concerning
“The standard of care … is governed by
reasonableness,” said the partner at Michelman & Robinson
in Los Angeles. “If you cross into an intersection on a red
light, you’ve violated the law. But if you go through an
uncontrolled intersection without looking both ways, then that
[invokes] a standard of reasonableness. There’s not a statute
saying you can’t do it; it’s a question of what a
reasonable person would have done under the circumstances.”
If it is established that the parties acted unreasonably, he added,
they could be deemed negligent. “What they would say is that
anybody in the U.S. who got plans and specifications …
anybody who had an overall view of the construction of the spa and
determined that it did not comply with applicable U.S. standards,
is arguably acting in a negligent fashion because they’re
participating in the construction of a dangerous spa.”
In many cases such as this, he added, suppliers will point out that
they provided the product and had no idea or control over how it
The manufacturers and distributors were charged with liability and
negligence. The suit accused the manufacturers of making defective
products, with the pump not having an SVRS or similar device to
shut it off in case of entrapment, and the cover not being
manufactured according to ASME/ANSI A112.19.8.
Additionally, the suit stated that the producers should have
provided proper warning about the hazards of entrapment and
provided instruction on how to entrapment-proof a pool or spa,
including the need to make sure the drain cover remains
The distributors were accused of selling dangerous products and not
properly warning purchasers about the possibility of entrapment.
Sandals and the pool- and spa-related firms chose not to comment
for this story, citing ongoing litigation.
The law firm representing the plaintiffs, Miami-based Brais
and Associates, described the incident in its blog in January,
ostensibly to reach out to potential witnesses. In April, Sandals
filed a suit against Brais and Associates and two of its attorneys,
seeking $180 million for damages to its reputation. The corporation
took issue with the firm’s claims that Sandals staff was not
willing to help and hadn’t been trained to perform CPR.
“The statements were made with malicious intent to turn the
public and potential jurors against Sandals to the benefit and
pecuniary gain of the Defendants,” it stated in a court
Brais’ counsel called the lawsuit frivolous and an attempt to
moderate negative publicity that would result from a wrongful death