Passengers sue cruise lines, alleging COVID-19 negligence

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(CBS)-Former passengers are suing Carnival-owned cruise lines and accusing company management and crew members of knowingly exposing them to coronavirus. In one case, the decision to continue boarding passengers caused a customer’s death, lawyers representing a family said. 

The most recent case, filed this week, involves Susan and Michael Dorety of Texas, who boarded a Princess Cruise Line ship February 21. Michael Dorety became ill while on board, according to court documents. He later died from coronavirus complications and Susan contracted the disease COVID-19, said Rusty Hardin, a Houston lawyer representing the couple. 

“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 COVID-19 outbreak on a cruise ship in Japan. “Princess had notice of the dangers. The Doretys did not.” 

Missouri couple Debra and Michael Dalton are also suing Princess Cruise Lines. They allege 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. 

Carnival, which owns Princess and Costa cruise lines, did not return CBS MoneyWatch’s requests for comment. 

Lawsuits are piling up as the cruise industry is suffering from the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on business. The U.S. Department of State has advised Americans not to board cruise shipsFewer customers have cost U.S. cruise lines nearly $750 million cost since January, according to company financial reports. 

Cruise lines were also left out of the nearly $2 trillion federal stimulus package, in part because they aren’t technically U.S. companies. Carnival Corp., for instance, is based in Panama.

Still, passengers might have a tough time winning their cases, said Morningstar analyst Jaime Katz. That’s because cruise lines make passengers sign a contract before boarding that releases them from certain liabilities, including death.

Courts typically ignore those clauses once a case goes before a judge, said Jeremiah Lowe, a San Diego lawyer representing Arizona couple James and Kelea Nevis in their lawsuit against Costa Cruises, a subsidiary of Carnival Corp. Lowe said those liability clauses 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. 

The Nevis lawsuit alleges 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 February 29 and are now at home recovering, Lowe said. 

Even after docking, the ship that carried the Nevises took another 20-day cruisewith 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. “I mean, they’re common carriers, but really they’re floating cities.”

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