Woman files lawsuit against Hawaii tourism authority over snorkeling dangers

ByTrevor Ault ABCNews logo
Tuesday, May 7, 2024
Wife files lawsuit after husband's death while snorkeling in Hawaii
A Michigan woman is sharing a warning heading into summer after her husband died while snorkeling on a Hawaiian vacation

A Michigan woman is warning others after her husband died while snorkeling in Hawaii. She has since filed a lawsuit against their hotel, the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Hawaii Visitors Convention Bureau.

"There's barely a minute in my life that goes by that I don't think about him," said Patti Johnson.

She says her husband of 38 years, Ray Johnson, was snorkeling with friends during their vacation in Hawaii when suddenly something wasn't right.

The 64-year-old was keeping his head above water and heading to shore but seemed out of sorts.

"Soon they started yelling, call 911! That's when I ran to the beach. And I ran -- I got onto the beach. They were pulling him out. His head snapped back and I believe at that point he was gone," Patti recalled.

Medical professionals were unable to resuscitate the 64-year-old. The family said the autopsy ruled it a drowning.

"It didn't make sense when I received the autopsy report that just said it drowning. And I was like, I was watching him come in. When you're drowning, I don't think you're making your way in. I don't think you're talking to the people you're with," she said.

The couple had been to Hawaii a half dozen times, and Ray had snorkeled in the islands numerous times, CNN reported.

"He was an experienced swimmer and snorkeler. But in February 2022, while snorkeling off Maui he had trouble breathing. A friend helped him to shore, but he died on the beach," stated Jay Stuemke, the Johnson family attorney.

Patti said she believes her husband died because of a little-known medical condition called rapid onset pulmonary edema, or ROPE.

It can happen when breathing is restricted, with fluid building up in the lungs, causing a lack of oxygen and sometimes leading to losing consciousness.

"Patients or people who are out snorkeling will notice an increase in shortness of breath is one thing, but then they'll also become confused," explained Dr. Meilan Han, chief of pulmonary & critical care medicine at the University of Michigan.

Stuemke says their long flight contributed to Ray's death.

"What long haul flights do, is it has an effect on your lungs," she said. "After 3 days you are back to normal, but if you snorkel after that long flight there is a substantial increased risk of death."

Patti is now suing the resort where she and her husband were staying, along with state and local tourism, alleging they failed to educate the public about the potential dangers of ROPE.

The Johnson family feels all of those groups knew about the dangers of snorkeling after long flights, but did not warn visitors.

"If warnings are effectively communicated, snorkelers can make informed choices about what risks to take," added Stuemke.

ABC News says all of those organizations declined to comment.

A 2021 study suggests ROPE might be to blame for some snorkeling deaths, with people dying due to lower-than-normal levels of oxygen rather than drowning. However, experts say more research is needed to fully understand if this is the case.

"After flying 10 hours, we would have waited 72 hours. His lungs would have recovered from whatever being in a pressurized cabin does to your lungs," Patti said.

But even beyond ROPE, the case is shining a light on snorkeling safety.

Drowning is by far the most common cause of death for Hawaiian tourists, with the majority of those deaths happening while snorkeling.

"I don't want other people to go through what we have gone through and to lose a family member to -- lose your husband in this way," Patti said. "It's just heartbreaking and it's avoidable, and so just, you know, just to please be aware of this. Make people aware."

CNN contributed to this post.