Ever since January 2020, it became evident that COVID-19 will place significant hurdles on cruise ship operators. The quarantine of approximately 2,500 passengers on board Diamond Princess off the coast of Japan that led to 700 confirmed cases of coronavirus was the first hard knock on the cruise industry. However, this was not enough to urge cruise ship operators to temporarily suspend their activities to minimise new transmissions on cruise vessels, or at the very least, to implement policies to prevent similar outbreaks.
Cruise ship operators continued their business as usual for more than a month. It was only mid-March, when some of the major cruise ship operators announced the voluntary suspension of scheduled cruises amid the severity of the public health crisis. Arguably, this delayed response on the part of cruise ship operators led to more passengers being exposed to COVID-19 with several passengers testing positive on cruise vessels around the world.
It now comes as no surprise that several claims have been brought against cruise ship operators over their response to COVID-19 outbreak. In early April, former passengers of the cruise ship Grand Princess filed lawsuits against the ship’s operators in federal courts of the US, claiming negligence on the part of the company in failing to ensure the health and safety of its passengers. The claims ask for compensatory and punitive damages for lost earnings, medical expenses and mental distress.
The Grand Princess departed on February 21 for a cruise from San Francisco to Hawaii. Before sailing to Hawaii, the ship made a 10-day round-trip to Mexico, and 62 passengers and more than 1,000 crewmembers continued on the voyage to Hawaii. On February 25, a man, who had been on the Mexico trip, died of the coronavirus. At this point, some members of the ship’s crew had already shown COVID-19 related symptoms. The Grand Princess turned back to the US mainland and skipped a planned stop in Mexico. On 5 March, passengers were quarantined in their cabins. However, COVID-19 had already been spreading on the ship, and 103 would ultimately test positive, with two passengers and one crew member now dead. On 9 March, passengers were moved into quarantine ashore.
The claims allege that the cruise ship operators were negligent in failing to inform Hawaii passengers that several passengers on the Mexico trip had shown COVID-19 related symptoms, failing to disinfect the ship thoroughly after the Mexico trip, and failing to screen passengers and crew before departing for Hawaii. In this respect, the claims mention that on the Grand Princess, the ship’s crew only asked passengers boarding the ship to ‘fill out a piece of paper confirming they were not sick’. The claims further allege that the cruise ship operators were negligent during the cruise in failing to inform passengers about the former passenger’s death and failing to quarantine passengers in their cabins on February 25.
Like in all personal injury claims, the liability of cruise ship operators for a passenger’s illness, injury or death will turn upon two legal questions. The first is whether the company was in any way negligent. In this respect, the claimants will have to prove that the ship operators did not exercise reasonable skill and care to ensure the health and safety of their passengers. On the facts, this may be possible, especially if it is proven that the company knew that several passengers on the Mexico trip had contracted COVID-19 and failed to disinfect the ship or at least to warn passengers boarding the ship in San Francisco.
The second is whether the company’s negligence caused the passenger’s illness. That is more problematic because it is hard to trace the exact moment when a person is infected with COVID-19. According to the official guidance of the WHO, the incubation period of COVID-19 (i.e. the time between catching the virus and beginning to have symptoms of the disease) ranges from 1 to 14 days, most commonly around 5 days. It is, thus, possible that some passengers had already been infected with COVID-19 when boarding the Grand Princess on February 21. Nevertheless, an argument may revolve around the fact that the company allowed 1,000 potentially infected people to share confined space with approximately 2,000 potentially uninfected passengers.
Assuming that both these questions will be answered in favour of the claimants, then a further question will arise as to whether the passengers of Grand Princess were in any way negligent in contracting COVID-19. If so, the company will be able to benefit from the defence of contributory negligence.
It is, thus, interesting now to see whether these claims will actually reach the courts or whether they will be settled in private.