Coconuts can cause death, typically as a result of the fruit falling from trees and striking people on the head. Following a 1984 study on "Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts", exaggerated claims spread concerning the numbers of deaths by coconut. A few people a year have become a widely circulated urban legend. The legend gained momentum after a noted expert on shark attacks claimed in 2002 that falling coconuts kill 150 people worldwide each year. The claim has often been compared with the number of shark-caused deaths per year, which is approximately five.
In 2002, officials in Queensland, Australia, removed coconut trees from local beaches to guard against death by coconut, leading one newspaper to dub coconuts "the killer fruit". Historical reports of actual death by coconut date back at least to the 1770s. Published accounts also include instances of coconuts being used as weapons, including the use of "coconut bombs" by Japanese forces during World War II.
The coconut palm Cocos nucifera grows up to 30 m (98 ft) tall, with pinnate leaves 4–6 m (13–20 ft) long, and pinnae 60–90 cm long; old leaves break away cleanly, leaving the trunk smooth. A tree can yield up to 75 fruits per year, but more often yields less than 30. A full-sized coconut weighs about 1.44 kg (3.2 lb). Coconut palms are cultivated in more than 80 countries of the world, with a total nut production of 61 million tonnes per year.
The origin of the death by coconut legend was a 1984 research paper by Dr. Peter Barss, titled "Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts", published in the Journal of Trauma (now known as the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery). In his paper Barss observed that in Papua New Guinea (where he was based), over a period of four years, 2.5% of trauma admissions were for those injured by falling coconuts, with at least two fatalities. The figure went on to be misquoted as 150 worldwide, based on the assumption that elsewhere in the world there was also a similar number of coconut deaths. In March 2012, Barss received an "Ig Nobel Award" from the Annals of Improbable Research in recognition of research that "cannot or should not be replicated." In response to the dubious distinction, Barss told the Canadian Medical Association Journal, "when you're treating these injuries daily, it's not funny at all."
Following the publication of Barss' study, exaggerated claims about the number of deaths by coconut began to spread. Reports of death by coconut became so widespread that The Straight Dope, a newspaper column devoted to exposing myths, reported that it had become an urban legend. Another writer, Joel Best, described the claim of widespread deaths as a "journalistic equivalent of a contemporary legend." An analysis by the Shark Research Institute cites a press release from Club Travel, a U.K.-based travel insurance company, as helping to spread the urban legend. In an attempt to market travel insurance to individuals traveling to Papua New Guinea, the release stated that coconuts were "ten times more dangerous than sharks". In May 2002, the legend gained new momentum when George H. Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, claimed that "[f]alling coconuts kill 150 people worldwide each year."
Concerns about death by coconut have been reported extensively in mainstream media sources. Such reports include:
Death by falling coconut
In order for a falling coconut to indeed kill somebody, the coconut must be heavy enough and the tree it drops from must be tall enough. Documented instances of death by coconut include the following:
While the typical form of death by coconut is by trauma resulting from a coconut falling from a tree under the force of gravity, variations on the phenomenon have also been reported.
One of the most unusual variations occurred in India in the 1930s. Newspapers across the world reported that a schoolboy in India had been killed by a "magic" or "enchanted" coconut. In an effort to determine who had taken a book from a classroom, an elementary school teacher at Harnahalli required each of his students to touch a coconut bearing a namam, a religious symbol. The teacher claimed that the one who took the book would face "divine wrath" upon touching the coconut. One student resisted, but was forced to touch the coconut. He reportedly contracted a high fever, fell into delirium, and died within an hour.
In April 1983, a coconut was cited as the cause of death for a female goose-beaked whale. The husk from a coconut became lodged in its intestine, and the whale beached itself on a sandbar at Siesta Key, Florida.
In May 1997, a report of death by coconut oil was published. The production line manager at a factory in Kiev, Ukraine, drowned in a vat of coconut oil. His body was discovered after he was reported as missing, and police were investigating to determine whether he fell or was pushed into the coconut oil.
Other occurrences involve coconuts being used as deadly weapons. These include:
There have also been reports of deaths resulting from the collapse of coconut palm trees. These include:
Other reports credit the strength of the coconut palm trees with saving the lives of persons who have been tied to the trees for safety during high wind or tsunami events.
Coconuts and the law
Deaths and injuries resulting from falling coconuts have been the subject of several legal proceedings that have been covered in the media.
In 1956, the City of Miami paid $300 to a woman after a coconut fell from a city-owned tree and struck her in the foot. In justifying the award, the city attorney explained that the city was allegedly on notice of the danger, because "a reasonable man would assume it was about to fall when it turns brown."
In 1977, a jury in Hawaii awarded $39,000 to a police officer who was struck by a falling coconut. The officer was hit in the head while removing fronds from a public sidewalk in Lahaina. The property owner was sued for failing to maintain the trees.
In December 2004, an English hotel guest by the surname of Brown was killed when a coconut from a tree near him dropped and hit his head as he ate breakfast. His spouse subsequently filed a lawsuit against the Dominican Republic-based hotel, as well as the tour agency Funtours which planned the couple's trip. The latter was ruled to have been negligent in Brown's death and was ordered by the judge to pay $55 million in compensation. However, this did not transpire, as the agency went bankrupt.
The American poet Frederick Seidel wrote a poem titled "Coconut", which included the following lines:
A coconut can fall and hit you on the head,
And if it falls from high enough can kind of knock you dead
Dead beneath the coconut palms, that's the life for me!
On their 1995 CD Makin' A Mess, the writing/singing team of Bob Gibson and Shel Silverstein included a song on this subject, entitled "Killed By A Coconut", which humorously describes a series of men and their fatal encounters with coconuts.
Falling coconut injuries were featured in the American television series Gilligan's Island. A June 1965 episode revolved around an injury sustained by Gilligan after a falling coconut hit him in the nose. Actor Bob Denver explained the success of the series as follows: "Little kids seem to love it. It doesn't take a great intellect or reasoning power to be able to laugh at a monkey running off with Gilligan's dinner or a guy getting conked on the head by a coconut." When Denver died, the show's creator Sherwood Schwartz said that Denver didn't get enough credit for his talent as a slapstick actor: "A lot of people don't think it's hard to be an actor where all you have to do is react to a falling coconut." In the film Cast Away, the stranded character played by Tom Hanks is alarmed several times by loud thuds, which he cannot identify. He finally sees a coconut fall, making the sound.
In March 2006, Newsweek ran a satirical article on former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, stating he testified that he had sustained amnesia after being struck in the head by a falling coconut and as a result of the injury, was unable to recall the events that occurred during his time at Enron.
When Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones underwent surgery and hospitalization for a brain injury in April 2006, some press reports erroneously blamed the injury on Richards' having been "conked by coconuts". Falling coconuts had not caused the injury as Richards had climbed a coconut tree to collect the fruits and had then fallen from the tree.
The video game Donkey Kong 3 has the antagonist Donkey Kong throwing coconuts from overhead at the player, trying to kill him. A hit causes a missed turn.
In the Spongebob Squarepants Episode, "Rock-a-Bye Bivalve", Patrick Star is addicted to a show where nothing happens except a man gets hit in the head by a coconut.