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A Remedy for Injustice: John Leighton Alumni Profile Featured in UF Law Magazine [June 2010] starstarstarstarstar

06-15-2010

You’ve likely seen them while vacationing at the beach —boats towing massive parasails high in the sky. The people strapped-in look like they’re having the time of their lives, or so it seems. But most vacationers either don’t know the inherent dangers of beach parasailing or don’t want to think about them. It is vacation, after all — you expect to be kept safe. Unfortunately, those to whom you entrust your life may not care about you at all.

In August 2007, sisters Amber May and Crystal White, 15 and 17 respectively, went on vacation in South Florida. Looking for fun, they decided to take advantage of the parasailing adventure offered through the Wyndham Resort they were staying at on Pompano Beach. The weather turned bad during their ride and eventually winds pushed the boat too close to shore, snapping the rope tethering the Whites’ parasail to the boat. Riding the wind, the parasail toting the two sisters crashed into a building. Crystal suffered a gash on her face and major head trauma, but Amber May’s neck was broken and she died two days later.

The family turned to experienced trial lawyer, John Leighton (JD 85), an expert in “resort torts,” and emerging area of law that deals with vacation-related injuries caused by the negligence of others. The Amber May White case is now settled, but Leighton hasn’t finished fighting for her. No laws are on the books to regulate parasailing businesses. Leighton is spearheading legislation to regulate the industry and to crack down on rogue operators who operate without penalties. Leighton has handled a few parasailing cases, but Amber May White’s was the most tragic.

“This is the most outrageous and unfortunately it takes terrible tragedy and outrage before we make any changes and even have a bill,” Leighton said. “Of course here we have a bill but we don’t yet have a law.”

Last year, the bill, which would regulate the industry and install mandatory safety standards, did not pass in Florida because lobbying by the resort industry, Leighton said. State Sen. Dan Gelber is working to get the bill passed this year and Leighton is ready to speak to the Florida Legislature about the industry if given the chance..

“Why the resort industry would be against a bill that would protect their own customers, I don’t understand, especially since the actual operators tend not to be the resorts themselves,” Leighton said. “They tend to be outsourced.”

The legislation would make industry minimum standards into law. The Professional Association of Parasail Operators, or PAPO, has minimum standards and codes of conduct that members must to follow. PAPO is also in favor of legislation to improve industry safety.

“You have to be a certain number of feet offshore, you have to have a spotter on the boat, you can’t go up too high, you can’t go up in certain winds — common sense things,” Leighton said. “But right now, nothing prevents anyone from going into the parasailing business. There’s nothing that says I can’t take you up in 40-knot winds.”

Leighton is an expert on resort torts and premises security litigation, which is the area of law addressing criminal injury on private property that should have been better secured. Leighton speaks nationally(this is redundant) about both, and has written a two volume treatise on premises security litigation, Litigating Premises Security Cases (Thomson-West, 2006). Representing violent crime victims has been a passion of his, and he has chaired the Inadequate Security Litigation Group of the American Association for Justice since 1996. Leighton has known he wanted to be a trial lawyer since he joined his high school debate team and began thinking of law school.

“I’ve always thought that there needed to be a remedy for people who were injured because of someone else’s negligence or intentional acts,” Leighton said. “Just in terms of basic equities, I’ve always thought that the civil justice system was critical to keeping a society in balance. It’s just something I’ve always liked to do.”

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