Coronavirus lawsuits pile up for cruise lines

Lucas Manfredi

As the coronavirus continues to ravage the cruise line industry, lawsuits are accusing the companies of negligence for their handling of cases on their ships.

Princess Cruises is facing a series of lawsuits after their Grand Princess Cruise ship became a hotbed for coronavirus infections back in February.

One lawsuit from Susan Doriety of Texas, who is seeking more than $1 million for alleged negligent treatment of her husband, Michael, said her husband "spent days suffering in agony" before dying in a hospital from the virus. Dorety says the crew failed to alert the couple that they could be exposed to the coronavirus when they boarded the Grand Princess on Feb. 21, in celebration of their 40th wedding anniversary.

Michael Dorety became ill while on board, according to court documents. He later died from coronavirus complications and Susan later contracted the disease COVID-19, said Rusty Hardin, a Houston lawyer representing the couple.

That same day, at least two infected passengers disembarked while more than 60 people who were exposed on the previous Diamond Princess voyage remained on board, according to a report by the New York Post. Four days later, the cruise line alerted disembarked passengers about possible exposure, but not those on the ship, claims the suit filed in federal court.

"It is shocking to me that a cruise line that had just discharged coronavirus-infected passengers took on board a new group of passengers to then mingle with others who had been exposed," Hardin said in a statement, referencing the February coronavirus outbreak in Japan. "Princess had notice of the dangers. The Doretys did not."

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The suit claims passengers weren't quarantined for another two weeks. When Michael fell ill, it took nearly three days to convince the crew to let him off the ship, says Dorety.

Another couple from Missouri, Debra and Michael Dalton, are also suing Princess Cruise Lines, alleging the ship's crew members knew about the outbreak, but didn't do enough to safeguard them from exposure during their trip to Hawaii. Passengers "were simply asked to fill out a piece of paper confirming they were not sick" when boarding the ship, court documents state.

"Despite the knowledge and experience it had with the outbreak of the disease on the Diamond Princess just a mere three weeks prior to the February 21 cruise, Princess Cruise did not have proper screening protocol in place to minimize the risk of exposure of the disease to its passengers and crew," the lawsuit states. "It would only stand to reason, having experienced such a traumatic outbreak on board one of its vessels less than a month prior to Plaintiffs' voyage on board the Grand Princess, that Princess would have learned to take all necessary precautions to keep its passengers, crew, and the general public safe. Unfortunately, Princess did no such thing."

A spokesperson for Princess Cruises told FOX Business back in March that it has been "sensitive to the difficulties the COVID-19 outbreak has caused to our guests and crew," but would not comment on lawsuits by Jeffrey and Anabel Jones and Eddy Castellanos, others stuck on the same ship as the Dorietys and Daltons, who accuse Princess Cruises of choosing to "place profits over the safety of its passengers, crew and the general public in continuing to operate business as usual," according to a report by TMZ.

"Our response throughout this process has focused on the well-being of our guests and crew within the parameters dictated to us by the government agencies involved and the evolving medical understanding of this new illness," the spokesperson said in a statement.

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The Princess Cruise Line is not the only Carnival-owned cruise being sued for negligence.

Arizona couple James and Kelea Nevis alleged in a lawsuit against Costa Cruises, another subsidiary of Carnival Corp., that crew members knew a passenger had coronavirus symptoms but didn't advise others to isolate themselves in their rooms.

James and Kelea Nevis tested positive for COVID-19 after docking Feb. 29 and are now at home recovering, according to the couple's lawyer, Jeremiah Lowe. Even after docking, the ship that carried the Nevises took another 20-day cruise with some of the same passengers from the previous voyage, the lawsuit alleges. Lowe called that decision a "systematic failure to protect passengers and the public at large."

"You wonder at what point are the cruise liners going to figure out that you have to have protocols in place," he said to CBS News. "I mean, they're common carriers, but really they're floating cities."

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But the lawsuits likely face an uphill battle due to the fact that passengers sign a contract before boarding that releases the companies from certain liabilities, including death.

Passengers who are seeking damages from cruise lines may have a difficult time proving companies failed to meet the "reasonable care" standard the set forth by the Supreme Court case Kermarec v. Compagnie General Transatlantique.

An attorney who specializes in cruise ship litigation, Spencer Aronfeld, told USA Today maritime law allows cruise ships to "basically conduct themselves without being held accountable," creating a "lawless" situation that is "designed to protect the coffers of the cruise line at the expense of injured passengers."

Lowe told CBS that courts typically ignore liability clauses once a case goes before a judge because they are void once a ship docks at a U.S. port.

"They continue to put them in their contracts, probably to discourage people from bringing lawsuits, but they are not being upheld," Lowe said.

Passengers aren't the only ones suing cruise lines.

Maritime attorney Michael Winkleman told FOX Business' Stuart Varney that he has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of employees of Royal Carribbean owned Celebrity cruise line for failing to follow "even the most basic safety precautions" including providing masks or enforcing social distancing measures for crewmembers aboard a ship that was found to have multiple coronavirus cases.

The lawsuit alleges Celebrity "allowed its crewmembers to eat in buffet settings aboard the vessels, mandated their participation in shipboard drills, and even permitted crewmembers to attend crew parties aboard the vessels."

"Celebrity's egregious failure to protect its employees has already resulted in hundreds of positive COVID-19 cases and what is more likely thousands given that there is limited testing being done on its vessels," the lawsuit stated. "As a result of its careless conduct further detailed below, Celebrity negligently exposed and is currently exposing thousands of its crewmembers to COVID-19."

Crew members may have a stronger case than passengers against cruise lines thanks to the Jones Act – also called the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 – which is a federal law that protects American workers injured at sea.

Under the Jones act, qualifying sailors can receive compensation from their employers if they are involved in an accident or get sick while on the job due to carelessness by their employer. They can also hold ship owners liable for unsafe vessel conditions if those conditions caused the accident or illness.

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The legal battles for the cruise industry come as the CDC announced April 9 that it has extended its no sail order until the coronavirus is no longer a public health emergency, the CDC rescinds the order or in 100 days. It requires ships to "develop a comprehensive, detailed operational plan" for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, according to the agency.

Currently, there are about 100 cruise ships -- with about 80,000 crew onboard -- at sea off the East Coast, West Coast and Gulf Coast, affected by the order. At least 20 cruise ships in U.S. waters or ports have crew members on board with "known or suspected COVID-19 infection," the CDC said.

According to Cruise Lines International Association, each day the suspension lasts results in an economic loss of about $92 million and more than 300 direct and 620 total American jobs. If the order remained in effect for a year, the toal economic loss for the United States would be $51 billion and 173,000 direct and 343,000 total American jobs

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