NY Court Rejects Suit Over Teen’s Drowning

     MANHATTAN (CN) – A wrongful-death lawsuit brought by a New York couple whose son drowned in Costa Rica while participating in a research program with Duke University does not belong in the Empire State, a federal judge ruled.
     Though the case involves the “tragic” death of an “exceptional individual,” it nevertheless “presents a very straightforward application of general jurisdiction precedent,” U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan said Wednesday.
     Ravi Thackurdeen’s decision to enroll at Duke had been a temporary one that the Swarthmore student made to participate in program run by the school’s partner, the Organization for Tropical Studies.
     Dedicated to promoting research and education about the use of natural resources in tropical locales, the North Carolina-based OTS had a global health and tropical medicine program in Costa Rica.
     During his time in the program, Thackurdeen, who had graduated valedictorian from high school and was pursuing a medical degree, helped research the relationship between cooking practices and upper respiratory infections within the local Ngobe tribe.
     The 19-year-old had one day left in the program when he participated in a surprise celebratory trip OTS had organized at Playa Tortuga on April 29, 2012.
     Organizers said the beach was safe, and advised students to swim parallel to the shore if they caught a rip tide. No lifeguards were present.
     While swimming, Thackurdeen and a fellow classmate were caught in a rip tide and pulled out to sea. A tourist rescued the classmate, but Thackurdeen was pulled 300 yards from the shore.
     He treaded water for more than a half hour before he drowned. Fishermen recovered the student’s body 36 hours later.
     The student’s parents, Roshni and Raj Thackurdeen, were home in New York when they received a phone call from a Duke’s official, telling them that their son was missing.
     They booked the first flight to Costa Rica and were at the airport when their other son found a Spanish-language newspaper article about a drowning in the country, which included a picture of a body bag.
     The distraught parents called the Duke official, who assured them “everything was fine” and that she would call them back.
     When the parents arrived in Costa Rica, however, they were told their son had drowned. They immediately joined a search party led by the Red Cross and the Costa Rican Coast Guard. During the search, OTS allegedly continued to conduct celebratory events for the other students.
     When their son’s body was finally recovered, Thackurdeen’s parents say they accompanied the body in the back of a pickup truck where it was transported without ice for four and a half hours.
     Blood allegedly poured from their son’s ears, and his chest and face were missing skin during the journey, according to their lawsuit.
     The Thackurdeens filed suit in Manhattan, blaming Duke and OTS for lax oversight. They alleged that OTS and Duke knew of safer beaches, but had elected for three years in a row to bring students to Playa Tortuga.
     “[Their] utter lack of supervision and warning relating to Playa Tortuga’s serious dangers directly led to Ravi’s tragic, untimely, and completely preventable death,” their complaint alleges.
     The plaintiffs had argued they should be able to sue in New York because they signed the contract allowing their son to participate in the OTS program while at their home in New York.
     Judge Nathan found such grounds insufficient Wednesday. She added that most of the actionable conduct – such as the delay in informing the parents about Thackurdeen’s disappearance and the allegedly deficient search effort – occurred exclusively in Costa Rica.
     Further, because the couple had not alleged fraud or breach of contract, it did not matter where they signed the OTS contract, the court found.
     The judge emphasized that wrongful-death lawsuits belong in the jurisdiction where the injury occurred. In this case, Costa Rica is the proper venue.
     New York courts can sometimes exercise general jurisdiction over out-of-state cases that involve business in the state, but Duke and OTS are based in North Carolina, the court noted.
     “A university or college cannot be deemed ‘at home’ in a forum [like New York] merely because it engages in the sort of minimal and sporadic contact with the state that is common to all national universities,” Nathan wrote.
     Tina Glaridian, an attorney for the Thackurdeens with Geragos & Geragos in Los Angeles, did not return a call for comment.
     Attorneys representing Duke and OTS did not return email requests for comment.
     Costa Rica Traveler magazine reports that rip tides are responsible for 80 percent of that country’s drowning deaths.

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