Wife blames state of Hawaii for her husband’s snorkelling death after autopsy ‘didn’t make sense’

Patti and Ray Johnson were enjoying a holiday in Maui, Hawaii  (Patti Johnson)
Patti and Ray Johnson were enjoying a holiday in Maui, Hawaii (Patti Johnson)

A woman is suing Hawaii’s tourism authority following the allegedly “preventable” snorkelling death of her husband.

Ray Johnson, 64, developed trouble breathing while snorkelling off a beach in Maui, Hawaii.

The Michigan father-of-four was helped ashore by a friend, as he remained responsive and even talked, wife Patti said. Just moments later, Mr Johnson passed away right in front of her.

A coroner officially ruled that he died by drowning, according to Mrs Johnson’s lawsuit. But the widow was left with a sinking feeling when she received the results of the post-mortem.

“It didn’t make sense when I received the autopsy report that just said… drowning,” she recently told ABC 7.

“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.”

Mr and Mrs Johnson had been married for 38 years. Since his death on 25 February, 2022, “there’s barely a minute in my life that goes by that I don’t think about him,” the devastated widow said.

Patti Johnson blames the state of Hawaii for her husband’s death (Fox News)
Patti Johnson blames the state of Hawaii for her husband’s death (Fox News)

Now, Mrs Johnson is suing Fairmont Kea Lani resort, the Hawaiian Tourism Authority and Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

Rather than drowning, she suspected her husband’s death could be due to a condition called rapid onset pulmonary edema (ROPE).

Mrs Johnson’s attorney, Jay Stuemke, claims that it’s impossible for an autopsy to determine if someone died by drowning or ROPE, despite the coroner’s ruling.

“Resistance to inhalation sets off this negative pressure in your lungs, and then your bodily fluids start to intrude into this really delicate mechanism,” Dr Philip Foti, an Oahu pulmonologist, told the Associated Press.

Between 2009 and 2018, ROPE – a form of hypoxia, or asphyxiation, a person’s lungs fill with bodily fluid, resulting in a difficulty in breathing – was linked with 206 Hawaii drownings, according to a study conducted by the state Department of Health’s Snorkel Safety Sub-Committee.

Mrs Johnson’s lawsuit cited the study’s author, who wrote that “probably most” snorkel-related fatal drownings were attributable to ROPE.

Ray Johnson passed away aged 64 (Patti Johnson)
Ray Johnson passed away aged 64 (Patti Johnson)

It also stated a number of risk factors can contribute to ROPE deaths, including the physiological effects of recent air travel.

Waiting just three days before snorkelling in the ocean can dramatically reduce the risk of developing the condition, according to Dr Meilan Han, a respiratory health specialist at the University of Michigan.

The pressurised environment of an aircraft cabin may affect the permeability of the lung’s membranes, thus, increasing the chances of an individual developing ROPE, Mrs Johnson’s attorney told Fox News.

“Ray should’ve been told that he was at particular risk of this for a variety of reasons, including the fact that he’d just flown in,” he added.

Mrs Johnson believes that had Hawaii’s tourism authority notified the couple about the complications of the condition, they would have drunk “Mai Tais for a couple days” around the pool.

She has begun printing small cards with details about ROPE in order to “try to educate” tourists about the conditions, where the state of Hawaii and the tourism industry have purportedly failed.