Cruise ship passengers with COVID struggle to win lawsuits

Lucio Gonzalez started showing cold-like symptoms several days after disembarking in San Francisco from a cruise on the Grand Princess. Within three weeks, the 73-year-old retired state park worker was hooked up to a ventilator in an intensive care unit at a Marin County hospital.

Gonzalez died on March 27, 2020, becoming the first known case of COVID-19 in Marin County.

Her son, Miguel, sued Princess Cruise Lines and its parent company, Carnival Corp., alleging that the companies failed to warn passengers that they risked contracting the deadly virus by boarding the ship in the first few months of it. ‘a pandemic that has now killed over 700,000 Americans.

“There is no doubt in my mind that he contracted it on this ship,” Miguel Gonzalez said in an interview.

He is far from alone. The cruise line industry is facing a wave of lawsuits from passengers and their families saying they or their loved ones contracted COVID-19 on a ship, resulting in either death or serious illness.

Yet maritime and corporate law make it difficult to extract significant damage from cruise lines. Even after a string of coronavirus outbreaks at sea and a growing number of lawsuits, the industry’s biggest players face little serious threat, legal experts say.

Multi-billion dollar cruise lines don’t worry about the potential financial effects of such lawsuits, even if they end up losing a lot of business, said Ross A. Klein, professor of sociology and expert in the cruise industry. at St. John’s College at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

“It’s part of the price to pay for doing business,” he said. “From their point of view, it’s not serious.

Campaigners and lawmakers have long argued that cruise ship operators play down crimes on board and that their investigations are clouded by questions of jurisdiction over international waters. The pandemic now shows how other legal constraints and jurisdictional issues that appear to favor the cruise industry further complicate civil litigation over COVID-19 cases on cruise ships.

“The system is rigged in favor of the billion dollar companies that own these cruise ships,” said Mark Chalos, managing partner of the San Francisco law firm that represents the Gonzalez family.

A spokesperson for Carnival Corp. said the cruise line is not commenting on pending litigation.

Cases involving death on a ship are governed by the Death on the High Seas Act, a 1920 law that limits damages received by the family of a passenger who died negligently to financial loss only – and not for pain and suffering, according to law experts.

For an elderly cruise passenger, like Gonzalez, family members can generally expect to collect funeral and burial costs and any financial support the deceased may have provided, according to legal experts.

Judges have been tough on plaintiffs who sued for COVID-19 infections on cruise ships, forcing plaintiffs to specifically detail how and when they were exposed to the virus and how the cruise line was negligent in bringing them down. exhibitor, said James Walker, a Miami lawyer who has filed several lawsuits against cruise passengers. As a result, he said, judges dismissed many lawsuits, while others were settled for less than $ 10,000 each.

Although cruise ships have experienced epidemics even before the pandemic, many judges have also agreed that cruise lines facing COVID-19 lawsuits should not be subject to a stricter standard than any other place of business. ashore, such as a hotel, restaurant or supermarket, according to lawyers who have filed such lawsuits.

Among the challenges that Gonzalez and other plaintiffs battling cruise lines face is what’s known as the ticket contract, the multi-page document that governs the relationship between a cruise line and the cruise line. Passengers receive the document after booking the cruise passage.

The contract varies slightly between cruise lines, but almost always prohibits passengers from filing or being part of a class action lawsuit against a cruise line and sets specific deadlines for filing a complaint. The contracts also require that cases not involving injury, illness or death be resolved by binding arbitration.

Medical staff take care of passengers as they disembark from the Grand Princess cruise ship at the Port of Oakland in early March 2020, where thousands of people have been stranded for days due to a COVID outbreak.

(Josh Edelson / AFP via Getty Images)

“Ordinary families cannot collectively unite to fight with better resources,” Chalos said. “Class actions level the playing field.”

The contracts also require that lawsuits against cruise lines be filed in designated federal courthouses. Carnival Cruises is demanding that all lawsuits against the line be filed in South Florida District Court in Miami. Princess Cruises requires a filing with the Central District Court of California, Los Angeles. Holland America is demanding that the lawsuits against the company be filed in the Western District Court in Washington, Seattle.

Legal experts say these requirements disadvantage passengers who live far from the courthouse where they must testify. Such bureaucratic hurdles also discourage cruise lines from signing up with a cruise line.

“That means if you live in Omaha, Nebraska, you can’t sue them in Omaha,” Ross said.

The number of lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles against Princess and her parent company, Carnival Corp., rose to 96 in 2020, from 37 in 2019, according to court records. The number of lawsuits filed against Carnival in Miami has also increased, albeit slightly, to 315 in 2020 from 306 in 2019, according to court records.

Princess Cruises made headlines in the spring of 2020, as COVID-19 spread around the world, due to several outbreaks on board. The Diamond Princess was quarantined on February 4, 2020 in Yokohama, Japan, with more than 700 passengers infected. A passenger on the Grand Princess has died of COVID-19 after returning to San Francisco after a cruise in Mexico.

During a February 11-21 cruise by Gonzalez and his wife, more than 100 passengers tested positive for the virus, according to the lawsuit.

A bus leaves the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan in February 2020.

A bus leaves the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship at a port in Yokohama, Japan, in February 2020. More than 700 passengers have tested positive for COVID-19 and 14 passengers have died of the disease.

(Associated press)

The key to winning a coronavirus lawsuit against a cruise line is to prove that the cruise ship did not act reasonably under the circumstances, said Michael Karcher, a Miami maritime lawyer.

But he said cruise lines were defending lawsuits brought at the start of the pandemic by arguing that no one at the time knew the best health protocols to adopt. More recently, the largest cruise lines have added wording to their ticket contracts advising passengers that by booking a cruise they accept the risk of contracting the coronavirus on a ship – a common warning in companies these days.

Since the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention closed the cruise on March 14, 2020 and extended it for more than a year, the largest cruise lines departing from the United States have adopted protocols to strict health care requirements, including requirements that passengers be vaccinated or tested for COVID. -19 and wear masks under certain conditions on board.

The lawsuit filed by Lucio Gonzalez’s family says Princess Cruises was aware of the risks of COVID-19 linked to the Diamond Princess outbreak in Japan in early February, but has not changed its protocols to try to warn or protect them. passengers of the Grand Princess.

“The managers of Princess and Carnival knew well what to look for in high-risk situations and knew how to counsel passengers,” the lawsuit alleges. “But, as the plaintiff would find out here, [the] the defendants did not apply their lessons from the Diamond Princess to subsequent cruises.

Lucio Gonzalez was a Mexican immigrant who retired from Mount Tamalpais State Park in Marin County, where he oversaw a maintenance crew. His family describes him as a humble man who enjoyed working outdoors, hiking, playing football with his friends and taking cruises with his wife.

Once admitted to hospital with a diagnosis of COVID-19, Lucio’s condition rapidly deteriorated and he was put on a ventilator before a family member could speak to him.

“Neither of us got a chance to say goodbye to him,” her stepdaughter Carla said.

The lawsuit says Lucio Gonzalez’s death was a direct result of his exposure to the virus on the ship and the cruise line’s failure to take effective action to prevent the spread of the virus.

Despite previous outbreaks, employees of the Grand Princess cruise did not adopt any changes in daily routine, did not attempt to enforce social distancing between passengers, and did not warn guests that a previous passenger died of COVID-19, according to family members.

“They didn’t show them a common courtesy to alert them that there was a possibility that they might have contracted something,” said Miguel Gonzalez.

The main objective of the lawsuit, he said, was to hold the princess and the carnival responsible for her father’s death: “I hope we can hold their feet against the fire and their make you feel pain. “


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