SUING CRUISE LINES FOR CONTRACTING THE CORONAVIRUS, By: Spencer Aronfeld
Suing cruise lines because you were infected with the coronavirus while onboard is an extremely complicated legal case. Modern cruise ships are notorious for being floating petri dishes for viruses, like the norovirus which can make passengers and crew extremely ill because it spreads quickly, due to the confined nature and questionable sanitation of modern cruise ships. However, holding cruise lines accountable in a courtroom for passengers and crew needlessly contracting the coronavirus is proving to be a daunting task- at least in United States federal courtrooms, which is where the majority of international cruise ship passenger injury and accident claims are litigated. If you are considering suing the cruise lines for an infection or injury due, you should make sure to have a competent maritime personal injury attorney who understands United States federal maritime, personal injury and international law.
FIRST COVID CRUISE SHIP CASE DISMISSED
Princess Cruise Lines, which is owned by Carnival, the world’s largest cruise line- was one of the first to have a Covid outbreak early on in the pandemic. Princess's alleged mishandling of the outbreak became worldwide news after numerous passengers aboard the Grand Princess tested positive.
A personal injury lawsuit was filed against the cruise line in the United States Federal Court located in Los Angeles, California by two passengers Ronald and Eva Weissberger while they were still on the ship. They alleged that Princess failed to protect them and other passengers aboard the ship once it knew that there had been an outbreak and as a result, they suffered emotional distress and were traumatized by being held in quarantine. It turns out neither have ever actually tested positive.
THE GRAND PRINCESS: 21 POSITIVE CASES OF CORONAVIRUS
The Grand Princess sailed from San Francisco to Hawaii with 2422 passengers and 1111 crew members. Shortly after departing, 21 people developed symptoms and tested positive for the coronavirus. The Weissbergers and other passengers were ordered to be quarantined in their cabins on the ship. While still in quarantine they hired a cruise ship lawyer and sued Princess for negligence, gross negligence and punitive damages claiming they had a fear of getting the coronavirus. This is essentially a negligent infliction of emotional distress case (NIED) as opposed to a personal injury case with physical injuries.
Since the Weissbergers’ lawsuit, more and more cases have been filed against cruise lines like Princess by both passengers and crew members alleging emotional injuries for the “fear” of contracting Covid and those who actually have been diagnosed with the disease.
Here’s why: The court ruled that the Weissbergers did not allege that they were in the “zone of danger” for contracting the coronavirus and that their emotional distress did not materialize into any physical symptoms.
FEDERAL LAW ON EMOTIONAL DISTRESS CASES
Under general maritime law, in order for a NIED claim to survive a motion to dismiss, the victim must satisfy two prongs. First, a plaintiff must allege that he or she has sustained a specific physical injury; and that at the time of the incident, he or she was in the ‘zone of danger’.
There is a long list of case law where plaintiffs have failed to satisfy prong one, even after having suffered from an arguable impact. For example - a railroad worker’s case was dismissed after he was found to have been exposed to asbestos. Princess successfully argued that since the Weissbergers never actually tested positive, they did not have an impact with the virus. Ultimately, the federal trial court dismissed the case with prejudice, to discourage what it perceived to be a potential onslaught of fraudulent or trivial coronavirus fear cases against cruise lines.
CRUISE ACCIDENT LAWYERS WILL BE CHALLENGED
Carnival just started selling tickets again and this week, and the MS Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian cruise ship owned by Hurtigruten just announced that it had a serious COVID outbreak. According to a statement issued by Hurtiguten, all 158 crew members have now been tested for possible coronavirus infection. 36 have tested positive for COVID-19, while 122 are confirmed as negative. The ship is currently docked in Tromsø, Norway with no guests onboard.
This Weissberger case however, shows just how hard it is under “normal circumstances'' to successfully sue a major cruise line on behalf of an injured passenger for negligence that causes physical injuries- but when the injuries are emotional in nature it is even more daunting. As more and more passengers sue cruise lines for coronavirus cases, a new paradigm will have to emerge or cruise lines will continue to escape accountability for their careless conduct.
Spencer Marc Aronfeld, Esq.
Board Certified Trial Lawyer
Coral Gables, FL