Old maritime rules hinder prosecution of Princess Cruise passengers

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When Susan Dorety’s husband Michael started developing coronavirus symptoms on the Grand Princess cruise ship in February, she immediately called the vessel’s emergency number, but it took several calls until doctor finally comes to see him, according to a million dollar federal lawsuit.

Princess Cruise Lines operated two unfortunate cruise ships that made international headlines as more than 800 passengers were infected with a coronavirus, resulting in at least 10 deaths.

Some passengers of the company’s Diamond Princess and Grand Princess companies are now taking the cruise line to court, although experts warn that complex and long-standing maritime laws create unique barriers.

Michael Dorety’s condition worsened and he became numb, even after a doctor on board gave him doses of Tylenol and Tamiflu. His wife spent two days trying to convince the cruise line to allow her to leave the ship for better care, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday in the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

“When she finally got Michael Dorety off the ship, almost three days after her symptoms started, the CDC looked at her alarmed and asked why she hadn’t brought him earlier,” the trial said. .

He was eventually taken to hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19 and died a few days later with his wife and children on the other end of the phone line.

Michael and Susan Dorety.Family photo

Susan Dorety says Princess Cruise Lines has been negligent in its response to the epidemic and has not tested more than 60 passengers on the previous Diamond Princess trip who were exposed to the coronavirus and stayed on board. They also did not alert the Doretys of the conditions of previous passengers before the cruise started on February 12.

Susan Dorety is not alone.

Ronald and Eva Weissberger filed a lawsuit against the cruise line last month, claiming that it potentially exposed them to the disease, which can be fatal. At least nine passengers from northern California filed similar lawsuits last week in federal courts in San Francisco, according to NBC Bay Area.

Princess Cruise Lines said it does not comment on pending litigation, but is sensitive to the difficulties experienced by passengers and crew members as a result of the epidemic.

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“Our response throughout this process has focused on the well-being of our customers and the crew within the parameters dictated to us by the relevant government agencies and on the evolution of medical understanding of this new disease, “the company said in a statement.

Passengers who claim damages from cruise lines may find it difficult to prove that the companies did not meet the standard of due diligence established by the United States Supreme Court in Kermarec v. Compagnie General Transatlantique, said Martin Davies, director of maritime law at the Tulane University School of Law. Center.

“What reasonable care means is what a reasonable person in this position would do in light of what they knew at the time,” said Davies on Thursday. “So looking back, the things they discovered after the event should not be relevant to what constitutes reasonable care at the time of the alleged negligence. “

When the Great Princess left, the American authorities still assured the Americans that the coronavirus was under control and that domestic travel should continue as usual. It was not until March that the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began issuing social isolation guidelines and that states began ordering home care.

It will be difficult to prove that a cruise line has failed to take reasonable precautions until we know more about the spread of the virus, said Davies. There is also the problem of asymptomatic carriers of the virus, aggravated by the lack of availability of tests.

“If it’s the passengers breathing each other that is the problem, there’s not much you can do about it if it’s not a cruise at all, which of course is where they are now, “said Davies.

Even if passenger attorneys were able to prove negligence, cruise lines could use the laws of the 1800s and 1920s to reduce the amount they would have to pay in damages.

The Limitation of Liability Act passed in 1851, for example, allows a cruise line to limit its liability to the total cost of the ship and requires all claims to be dealt with in the same federal court.

“This is an advantage for the shipowner because it means he has to fight once, where he wants, rather than many times when the complainants choose to be,” said Davies.

Another obstacle faced by passengers is the High Seas Death Act of 1920, which limits financial damage to families in the event of the death of a loved one due to an injury on the ship. The 100-year-old law was passed to allow widows of seafarers to recover their wages, Miami Maritime Attorney Jim Walker said Thursday.

“This law is still on the books, you can’t file under a state wrongful death law, which helps recover for pain and suffering and heartache and so on,” said Walker. “You only have the right to recover these limited pecuniary damages. “

But Walker said lawsuits should still be filed despite obstacles. An easier case would be if the cruise lines were unreasonably negligent in not allowing passengers to cancel their trips or the companies were not warning them of the potential danger, said Walker.

Despite President Donald Trump’s assurances that Americans were at low risk for the coronavirus earlier this year, the World Health Organization issued a global risk warning in January, said Walker. His office filed a number of complaints from passengers who were unable to obtain a cruise refund, he said.

“On the one hand, they did not let people make their own decisions about what was best for their safety and health and forced them to take these cruises,” he said. “And then they were clearly behind the ball. They were very, very slow to respond. “

Charles Naylor, a maritime lawyer in Long Beach, California, who has practiced for over 40 years, said he had refused the opportunity to represent passengers due to limitations.

Conditions on tickets limit class actions, requiring each individual to prove that they contracted the virus during the cruise, said Naylor.

“When you think about what it might cost to prove this, what should your case be worth to justify the time and expense involved? Said Naylor.

Naylor said that such lawsuits are not easy for people, forcing complainants to invest large amounts of time, energy and money in court battles that could result in little rewards due to 100-year-old laws. years.

“This happens all the time in maritime law and in maritime affairs,” said Naylor. “Perhaps this creates an opportunity for Congress to correct what should have been resolved long ago. “

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