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Family sues over son's fall at hotel

The toddler from Pennsylvania slipped between balcony railings. He survived.

Published July 11, 2005

CLEARWATER - The family of a Pennsylvania boy who fell three stories from a Clearwater Beach hotel balcony last year is suing the hotel, saying the balcony railings were unsafe.

The boy, 16-month-old Jacob Murray, slipped through the railings of the Howard Johnson Beach View Resort and fell 27 feet to the concrete below. He survived the fall but suffered serious injuries and was hospitalized for about two months.

"It's amazing he survived," said Bill Wagner, a Tampa attorney who is representing Jacob and his parents, Dennis and Tammy Murray.

Wagner said he is researching whether the hotel should have had less space between its balcony railings. The lawsuit was filed May 24 in Pinellas circuit court.

Emanuel Naim, a spokesman for Howard Johnson International, said, "We don't comment on pending litigation." Messages left with the manager's office at the hotel, 325 S Gulfview Blvd., were not returned.

The hotel was built when codes required that the railings be no more than 6 inches apart. Though codes since then have thinned the required space to 4 inches, the hotel may not have been required to meet the new standards.

Wagner said the hotel's railings are about 51/2 inches apart. A review by the city's code enforcement department found the hotel in compliance with the codes, according to city records.

However, Wagner said, the hotel at one time had plans to renovate the facility, which included thinner-spaced balcony railings. He planned to explore whether the hotel ever renovated to a point that codes would have required new and safer balcony railings.

Either way, Wagner said, the hotel was negligent because it didn't place any warning signs on the balcony. Wagner said he visited the hotel room several weeks ago and saw that the railings were the same and that no warning signs had been put up.

"It would be simple to put a sticker in the window," Wagner said. "That wasn't done."

Reached at her home in State College, Pa., Tammy Murray referred all questions to the family's attorneys.

The fall occurred about 7:30 a.m. Oct. 3. Dennis Murray was visiting the area for a convention and brought his wife and two sons, Jacob and Lucas, 3, with him.

That morning, Dennis Murray took his two sons out on the balcony. Birds fluttered by. A tractor raked the sand on the beach. The boys laughed.

Lucas darted back into the room. Dennis Murray turned his head briefly to watch him go.

Jacob remained on the balcony. Still in his pajamas, he padded toward the vertical rails.

Then he was gone.

His father saw him slip through and grabbed for his pajama top, but it was too late. Jacob fell 27 feet to the ground. The 25-pound boy landed on the concrete near the pool. People who came to his aid saw a pacifier near him.

Dennis Murray cried to his wife to dial 911.

Wagner said it had never crossed Dennis Murray's mind that his son could fit through the bars.

"This man wasn't letting the child on the balcony by himself," Wagner said. "It just didn't sink in to him that the child could fall through."

Down below, Jacob was breathing but unresponsive. There was an obvious bruise on his head but no blood. Paramedics considered his injuries life-threatening and summoned a helicopter to carry Jacob to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. A chaplain was called to assist the family.

"He just walked through," Dennis Murray told a Clearwater police officer who responded to the accident.

Doctors determined Jacob had suffered multiple skull fractures and had bleeding on his brain. His left leg also was fractured.

Jacob was transferred to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg that day. He finally opened his eyes a few days later but suffered from temporary blindness.

His condition stabilized and, on Oct. 22, he was moved to a children's hospital near Philadelphia, where he stayed for about a month. He was released in late November and entered outpatient treatment, Wagner said.

Wagner said it was too early to tell what permanent effects the fall will have on Jacob, though it was apparent there will be some.

He said Jacob is behind normal children his age in cognitive development, expressive communication, the ability to understand and social development.

"He is probably way behind where he should be at this stage," Wagner said.

[Last modified July 11, 2005, 01:00:09]

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