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Parents of two young women who died while volunteering overseas begin legal action against volunteering organisation

The parents of Alice Barnett and Summer Robertson, who died while volunteering in South Africa, have begun legal action against Lattitude Global Volunteering following a lengthy battle to secure answers from the company regarding the circumstances of their daughters' deaths and reassurance that safety measures have been improved.

Posted on 08 August 2017

Alice, 19, and Summer, 21, began a volunteering trip to South Africa with Lattitude in September 2014. They travelled to Walmer Township, near Port Elizabeth, South Africa to take part in Lattitude’s Human Dignity Centre Youth Health Education Project where they were working to provide health education to young people in the Township.

Their volunteering trip was scheduled to come to an end on 8 December 2014 and on 3 December 2014 their group was taken to Woody Cape Backpackers and Nature Lodge, in Alexandria, Eastern Cape, for a ‘debrief’ following their volunteering work.

On the evening of 4 December Alice and Summer, along with three other volunteers and  Lattitude’s country manager, walked from the camp to a nearby beach.

Alice and Summer, two other volunteers and the Lattitude manager waded into the water and all five were caught by a rip current and pulled into the water. The Lattitude manager was able to get to the shore after 30 minutes of struggling and two of the volunteers were saved from the waters by rescuers from the National Sea Rescue Institute after 50 minutes. Tragically Alice and Summer were overcome by the rip current and drowned.

An inquest into the deaths of Alice and Summer concluded on 1 June 2015 that the two women, with three others, entered the sea, wading, not swimming, when they were caught in a rip current. They could not escape the rip current and died in the sea.

The Coroner issued a Prevention of Future Deaths report to Lattitude following the inquest which raised concerns including the lack of a specific risk assessment in relation to rip currents and the need to obtain local advice and information from the nearest National Sea Rescue Institute.

Since their deaths Alice and Summer’s parents - Suzie and Peter Barnett and John and Sarah Robertson -  have fought tirelessly to hold Lattitude to account and to ensure that no other volunteers are exposed to such dangers.

The two families have sent numerous emails and letters and had several meetings with various representative from Lattitude since Alice and Summer’s deaths. They feel that Lattitude have been defensive and dismissive of their concerns and have often been ill-informed when meeting with the families. The families are disappointed by the company's response to their complaints and requests for information.

Lattitude initially told the families that Alice and Summer’s deaths had been caused by a freak giant wave.

The two families have now issued a legal claim against Lattitude for negligence in failing to ensure the safety of Summer and Alice. Their claims include that Lattitude provided no safety advice to volunteers regarding rip currents and did not take precautionary measures to assess the risk of going into the water.

Alice and Summer’s families said in a joint statement:

“When Alice and Summer left for a period of volunteering in South Africa we could not have imagined the devastating way in which their trip would come to an end.

“Alice and Summer were independent young adults who wanted to make a difference in the world and we were proud of their decision to help others less fortunate than themselves.

“As parents we put our trust in Lattitude to look after our daughters and provide a safe environment for all their volunteers as they claimed they would.

“This trust was utterly shattered by their disregard for the safety of those under their care which led to Alice and Summer’s deaths and was compounded further by their treatment of us all since then.

“We feel forced into taking legal action as Lattitude seem to close their door to us from the moment we questioned their ‘freak wave’ claim.

“Nothing will bring Alice and Summer back but we hope that we can get some answers to the questions we still have surrounding their deaths and that Lattitude will put in place measures to ensure that the same thing does not happen to any other family.”

Clare Campbell, partner in law firm Leigh Day’s travel litigation team who is representing the families, said:

“Lattitude had a duty of care to all its volunteers and our clients believe that they neglected that duty and exposed their volunteers to serious risks that could have easily been avoided.

“More than two and a half years after the tragic deaths of Summer and Alice their parents are still having to fight to get answers about why their daughters were exposed to these lethal rip-currents.

“Not only do their families want answers but they have relentlessly campaigned to secure assurances from Lattitude that their safety processes have improved so that no other families have to go through what they have been through and are still going through now.”