Cruise passengers with COVID fight to win lawsuits

Lucio Gonzalez displayed symptoms similar to those of a cold a few days after disembarking from a cruise on the Grand Princess in San Francisco. Within three weeks, the 73-year-old retired State Park worker was put on a ventilator in an intensive care unit at a Marin County hospital.

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

His son, Miguel, owned Princess Cruise Lines and its parent company, Carnival Corp. sued, claiming the companies failed to warn passengers they risked contracting the deadly virus if they boarded the ship in the early months of a pandemic that has now killed more than 750,000 Americans.

“I have no doubt that he was infected on this ship,” said Miguel Gonzalez in an interview.

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

But maritime and corporate law makes it difficult to force significant damages from cruise ships. Even after a string of coronavirus outbreaks at sea and a growing number of court cases, the industry’s biggest players face little serious threat, legal experts say.

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

“It’s part of the deal price,” he said. “From their perspective, it’s not serious.”

Activists and lawmakers have long claimed that cruise line operators downplay crimes on board and that investigations into them are clouded by issues of jurisdiction in international waters. The pandemic is now showing how other legal restrictions and jurisdictional issues that seem to favor the cruise industry are further complicating civil disputes over COVID-19 cases on cruise ships.

“The system is rigged for the benefit of the multi-billion dollar corporations that own these cruise lines,” said Mark Chalos, a managing partner of the San Francisco law firm representing the Gonzalez family.

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

Deaths on a ship are governed by the Death on the High Seas Act, a 1920 statute that limits damages claimed by the family of a passenger who died through negligence to financial loss – not personal injury compensation, according to the law experts.

With an elderly cruise passenger like Gonzalez, family members can usually expect to pay funeral and burial expenses, as well as any financial support the deceased would have contributed, legal experts say.

Judges have been tough on plaintiffs suing over COVID-19 infections on cruise ships, requiring plaintiffs to specify exactly how and when they were exposed to the virus and how the cruise line negligently exposed them, said Miami attorney James Walker , which has filed several lawsuits on behalf of cruise lines. As a result, he said, judges have dismissed many lawsuits while settling others for less than $10,000 each.

Although cruise lines have had a number of outbreaks prior to the pandemic, many judges also agree that cruise lines that are the subject of a COVID-19 lawsuit should not be subject to stricter standards than any other land-based place of business, such as B. a hotel, restaurant or supermarket, according to lawyers who have filed such lawsuits.

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

The treaty 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 time limits for filing a lawsuit. The treaties also provide that cases other than personal injury, illness or death are resolved through binding arbitration.

The Grand Princess cruise ship in the Port of Oakland, California on March 09, 2020.

Medical staff attend to passengers disembarking from the Grand Princess cruise ship in Oakland Port in early March 2020, where thousands of people were stranded for days due to a COVID outbreak.

(Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

“Ordinary families cannot band together to fight with better resources,” Chalos said. “Class action lawsuits level playing field.”

The contracts also provide for lawsuits against cruise lines to be filed in certain federal courts. Carnival Cruises requires that all lawsuits against the cruise line be brought in the Southern District Court of Florida in Miami. Princess Cruises is seeking a filing in the Central District Court of California in Los Angeles. Holland America is requesting that lawsuits be filed against the company in the Western District Court of Washington in Seattle.

Legal experts say these requirements penalize passengers who live far from the courthouse, where they must file a file. Such bureaucratic hurdles also keep cruise passengers from taking over a cruise company.

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

The number of lawsuits filed in US District Court in Los Angeles against Princess and its parent company Carnival Corp. were filed rose to 96 in 2020, up from 37 in 2019, court filings show. The number of lawsuits filed against Carnival in Miami also increased, albeit slightly, from 306 in 2019 to 315 in 2020, according to court filings.

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

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

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

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

(Associated Press)

The key to winning a coronavirus lawsuit against a cruise line is proof that the cruise ship did not act reasonably under the circumstances, said Michael Karcher, a Miami-based attorney specializing in maritime law.

But he said cruise lines are defending lawsuits filed early in the pandemic by arguing that at the time no one knew the best health protocols to adopt. More recently, the largest cruise lines have added language to their ticketing contracts, informing passengers that by booking a cruise they accept the risk of contracting the coronavirus on a ship – a common disclaimer for companies these days.

Since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suspended cruising and extended it for more than a year on March 14, 2020, the largest cruise lines sailing from the U.S. have implemented strict health protocols, including requiring that Passengers must be vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 and wear masks on board under certain conditions.

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

“Princess and Carnival leadership knew exactly what to look for in high-risk situations and knew how to advise passengers,” the lawsuit says. “But as the plaintiff here would state, [the] The defendants did not apply their lessons learned from the Diamond Princess to subsequent cruises.”

Lucio Gonzalez was a Mexican immigrant who retired from Mt. Tamalpais State Park in Marin County, where he oversaw a maintenance crew. His family describes him as a humble man who loved working outdoors, going on hikes, playing soccer with his friends and taking cruises with his wife.

After being hospitalized with a COVID-19 diagnosis, Lucio’s condition quickly deteriorated and he was put on a ventilator before any family member could speak to him.

“None of us got a chance to say goodbye to him,” his daughter-in-law Carla said.

The lawsuit states that 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 measures to prevent the virus from spreading.

Despite previous outbreaks, staff on the Grand Princess cruise made no changes to the daily schedule, did not attempt to impose social distancing on passengers, and did not warn guests that a previous passenger had died from COVID-19, according to family members.

“They didn’t show them the usual courtesy of alerting them to the possibility that they might have contracted something,” said Miguel Gonzalez.

The main goal in filing the lawsuit is to hold Princess and Carnival accountable for the death of his father: “I hope that we can put their feet on the fire and cause them pain.” Cruise passengers with COVID fight to win lawsuits

Russell Falcon

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