Families of two drowned volunteers take legal action against charity

Alice Barnett, 19, and Summer Robertson, 21, were drowned after being caught in rip tides off the Eastern Cape while volunteering with Lattitude Global Volunteering in 2014

Alice Barnett (middle left, sunglasses) and Summer Robertson (middle right, hands clapping)
Alice Barnett (middle left, sunglasses) and Summer Robertson (middle right, hands clapping)

The volunteering charity Lattitude Global Volunteering is facing legal action from the families of two volunteers who drowned while volunteering with the charity in South Africa in 2014.

Alice Barnett, 19, and Summer Robertson, 21, were caught in a rip tide while wading at a beach in Eastern Cape in South Africa and swept out to sea, along with two other volunteers and a Lattitude manager.

The other three survived, but Robertson’s body was recovered later that evening and Barnett’s was found the following day, according to the report by John Penhale Ellery, the coroner for the area of Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin, who led the inquest.

The pair had been on a "debrief" trip after completing their three-month volunteering programme in a township near Port Elizabeth and were due to return home three days after the incident on 4 December.

In a statement made through their solicitors, their parents’ said they were initially told the two women had been struck by a freak wave, but the inquest report made it clear that rip currents were likely to be an issue in the area and Lattitude should have carried out further risk assessments, seeking local knowledge before allowing anyone into the water.

The statement said the two families had had contact with Lattitude on numerous occasions but the charity had been "defensive and dismissive of their concerns" and were "ill-informed".

The two families have now issued a legal claim against Lattitude for negligence in failing to ensure the volunteers’ safety, failing to provide safety advice to volunteers about rip currents and failing to take precautionary measures to assess the risk of going into the water, the solicitors’ statement said.

The two families said in a statement that they had trusted Lattitude to provide a safe environment for all their volunteers. "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," the statement said.

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

Since launching the case, Barnett’s father Pete Gallagher has tweeted that the case was not motivated by money. "This is for justice and a change to safety education," he wrote. "They need not have died."

Dr Pat Upson, chair of Lattitude said it had been "absolutely committed" to ensuring that the families had an accurate, full and proper understanding of all the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. "The incident has been investigated by the coroner and we are fully engaged in that inquest process," he said.

Upson said the charity was unable to comment further because of the legal action.

Barnett and Robertson were volunteering as part of the government-funded International Citizen Service, run by the volunteering organisation VSO. Lattitude had a contract to deliver some of the volunteering provision on the programme.

The contract was terminated after the two women died, according to a statement from Philip Goodwin, chief executive of VSO.

He said the organisation was profoundly sorry for the two deaths, had been in touch with the families and would continue to be available to support them.

"We have endeavoured to learn the lessons and to work hard each and every day to improve the safety and security for the thousands of volunteers who take part in the programme every year," he said.

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