Florida Cruise Ship Passengers Challenge Coronavirus Quarantine in Court

No one is safe from the expanding COVID-19 outbreak, including people at sea who expected the trip of a lifetime and got more than they bargained for.

Ronald and Eva Weissberger were aboard the Grand Princess when she left Oakland bound for Hawaii. At least two people on board were infected but Princess Cruises told no one, according to the lawsuit. Instead, the Grand Princess set sail. During the voyage to Hawaii, 21 passengers and crew developed confirmed coronavirus cases.

The Weissbergers allege that if they had known about the danger, they would not have boarded the ship. Furthermore, the February 2020 quarantine of the Diamond Princess should have put the company on notice of the danger, they state.

“It would only stand to reason, that having experienced such a traumatic outbreak on board one of its vessels less than a month prior to the current voyage on board the Grand Princess, that the defendant would have learned to take all necessary precautions to keep its passengers, crew and the general public safe,” they stated in court documents. “Unfortunately, the defendant Princess did no such thing.”

Liability in Cruise Ship/Infectious Disease Claims

Cruise ships are floating cities. So, roughly the same legal principles apply to oceangoing vessels as to landlubbers. However, cruise ship injury claims are quite complex.

Things begin easily enough. All premises liability negligence claims, whether they are falls, dog bites, drug overdoses, infectious diseases, or anything else, usually begin with a legal duty. Florida and most other states divide these victims into three categories according to the victim’s relationship with the owner:

  • Invitees,
  • Licensees, and
  • Trespassers.

The language often varies slightly. The Sunshine State uses categories like “business invitees,” but they are essentially the same.

Invitees have permission to be on the land and their presence benefits the owner. The invitation could be direct (booking a cruise) or indirect (an “open” sign). Somewhat similarly, the benefit could be economic (paying for the cruise) or noneconomic (the benefit of social interaction, which is in short supply these days).

Employees are technically invitees, as well. However, as outlined below, workers have different legal protections.

Since the relationship between owner and victim is so close, the legal responsibility is quite high. Generally, landowners have a duty of reasonable care in these situations. Owners must ensure the premises are safe and frequently inspect the premises to ensure these standards are maintained.

Licensees have permission to be on the land, but there is no benefit. Guests of hotel guests are usually licensees. Owners have a duty to warn licensees about latent (hidden) defects.

Trespassers have no permission, and there is no benefit. As a result, there is no duty, at least in most cases.

Theoretical duty is not enough. Owners are not liable for injury damages unless they know about the hazard which caused injury. Evidence on this point could be:

  • Direct: Smoking guns like warning emails and restroom cleaning/sanitizing reports often emerge during a lawsuit’s discovery process. During this phase, the parties exchange information about their claims and defenses.
  • Circumstantial: If direct evidence is unavailable, victim/plaintiffs can use circumstantial evidence to establish constructive knowledge (should have known).

To understand constructive knowledge, assume there is a banana peel on the floor and the victim slips. If the peel was yellow, it probably fell recently, so no constructive knowledge attached. But if the peel was black, it had probably been there a whi;e, and a worker should have picked it up.

Victim/plaintiffs must establish either actual or constructive knowledge by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not).

Many premises liability claims stop here. But in infectious disease claims, it is difficult to establish a connection between the property hazard and the victim’s injury. Lawyers call this element causation.

It is almost impossible for doctors to connect illness to a specific person and a specific time. Doctors can usually identify about a 24-hour window, but most people go to lots of places during that time period.

So, the standard of care often comes into play. If the landowner failed to live up to the standard of care, the landowner knew about a potential hazard, and the victim was injured at about the time of exposure, liability probably attaches. Generally, the standard of care in infectious disease outbreaks includes the following:

  • Screening passengers and crew for illness symptoms,
  • Regularly sanitizing surfaces, especially in common areas,
  • Taking immediate and appropriate action to limit the spread of infectious diseases, such as partial lockdown or quarantine, and
  • Giving reasonable accommodations to quarantined passengers and crew.

These standards are quite fluid. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration, World Health Organization, and other groups regularly amend their guidelines during times of crisis.

Location usually affects premises liability law, especially in cruise ship claims. If the ship was within three miles of shore, including at the dock, the closest state’s law usually applies. If the ship was further out, the Death on High Seas Act (DOHSA) typically applies. DOSHA sometimes limits the amount of compensation victim/plaintiffs can receive.

Coronavirus and Workers’ Compensation

In terms of injured workers, location is usually irrelevant. Landlubbers can count on workers’ compensation for lost wages and medical bills. Injured seamen can count on the Jones Act for similar benefits.

Under this law, a “seaman” is any worker who spends at least 30% of his/her time aboard a ship in any capacity. That category includes people like chefs and entertainers who never get close to the water.

The burden of proof is different. As mentioned, civil plaintiffs must prove facts by a preponderance of the evidence. But injured seamen must only establish proximate cause. That is a much lower standard.

Assume a crew member goes on deck one dark and stormy night. The worker steps on a slick spot at the same time the deck pitches violently, and the worker falls. The slick spot might not have caused the fall, but it was related to the fall. That is the essence of proximate cause.

Contact an Experienced Attorney

At Brill & Rinaldi, the Law Firm, we hold landowners accountable when they carelessly injure guests or workers. Call us today for a free consultation. We routinely handle matters in Miami-Dade county and nearby jurisdictions.

Cruise ship owners might be responsible for coronavirus infections and other on-board injuries. To learn about your legal options, call Brill & Rinaldi.