John Leighton (JD 85)

A remedy for injustice

By Ian M. Fisher (3L)

Trial lawyer and UF alumnus

John Leighton Trial lawyer and UF Law alumnus

You’ve likely seen them while vacationing at the beach — boats towing massive parasails hundreds of feet in the sky. The people strapped in look like they’re having the time of their lives, but the rides can be deadly.

In August 2007, sisters Amber May and Crystal White, 15 and 17 respectively, went on vacation in South Florida. They took advantage of the parasailing adventure offered through the Wyndham Resort they were staying at on Pompano Beach. The weather turned during their ride and heavy winds pushed the boat too close to shore and snapped the rope tethering the Whites’ parasail. Riding the wind, the parasail crashed into a building. Crystal suffered 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 (BA 82, JD 85), an expert in resort torts — the emerging area of law that deals with vacation-related injuries caused by negligence. The Amber May White case is now settled, but Leighton hasn’t finished fighting for her. He is advocating for legislation to regulate the currently unregulated industry and crack down on rogue operators whose rides are dangerous. Leighton said he’s served as counsel in several 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. “Here we have a bill but we don’t yet have a law.”

The bill, which would regulate the industry and install mandatory safety standards, failed due to intense lobbying by the resort industry, Leighton said.

The legislation would make industry minimum standards outlined by the Professional Association of Parasail Operators, or PAPO, into law and would enforce codes of conduct recommended by the organization, which is 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 about both, and has written a two-volume treatise on premises security litigation, Litigating Premises Security Cases (Thomson-West).

In addition, representing victims of violent crimes is a passion of his, and he has chaired the Inadequate Security Litigation Group of the American Association for Justice since 1996. Leighton knew 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.”