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Cruise Ship Negligence for COVID-19 Vexes Both Plaintiff and Defense

Thanks in part to several well-publicized cruise ships carrying passengers diagnosed with COVID-19, lawsuits have proliferated against cruise lines. Claims have been brought by passengers and crew members alleging negligence that lead to COVID-19 infection and death. However, liability is far from certain. These cases face many obstacles which will require the use of expert witnesses on issues related to the duty of care owed to plaintiffs, breach, causation and damages.

While there were country-specific travel warnings related to coronavirus even in January and February, cruise ship travel warnings were arguably less prevalent before the Grand Princess was forced to quarantine passengers with COVID-19 in early March. Among the many problems with lawsuits against cruise lines is determining whether ships exercised reasonable care in protecting passengers and crew during this period of uncertain guidance by U.S. officials.

Cruise lines have a duty of reasonable care. However, breach of that duty involves a fact specific assessment of several issues. These include what was known about the spread of COVID-19 at the time, actual knowledge of prior or current passengers with COVID-19 symptoms, warnings or instructions given to passengers and crew, and safety precautions that were taken before and after being informed of a possible COVID case (e.g., cleaning protocols, personal protective equipment, quarantine, etc.).

Also relevant are factors which may mitigate liability. For example, because many cruise lines have faced breakouts of Legionnaire’s Disease, they typically follow safety protocols from the CDC regarding cleaning ships, including what to use and how often to clean surfaces. Compliance with CDC protocols may help show cruise lines met their duty of care. In addition, passenger knowledge about the risks of COVID-19 is important. If passengers knew or should have known of the risk and boarded the cruise ship anyway, cruise lines may seek to argue passengers assumed the risk and were of comparable fault for their injuries.

Another complicating issue in claims against cruise lines relates to their status under maritime and admiralty law. Disputes at sea are governed by admiralty law and adjudicated in the court of jurisdiction specified on the back of each passenger’s ticket, regardless of where the incident occurred. In addition, cruise lines are not U.S. companies and as such as not subject to U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) regulations. These factors affect the determination of the standard of care and whether it was breached. Furthermore, negligence related to crew members fall under the Jones Act, part of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. The Act provides for payment of room, board, and other expenses for an injured seaman while recovering at home (“maintenance”) as well as all medical expenses (“cure”) to the point at which further treatment would not yield objective benefits. This affects damages awarded to crew members.

Proving or defending against the liability of cruise lines will need to rely on a host of expert witnesses. Potential experts include  Cruise Ship Medicine Physicians who are physicians (typically Emergency Medicine doctors) experienced in Cruise Ship Medicine. They understand shipboard resources and limitations and how that affects treatment of a diverse range of medical conditions that typically require complex care. They also are knowledgeable of unique issues involving the Jones Act.

As to the spread of COVID-19 on board, Infectious Disease Physicians and Epidemiologists may offer necessary testimony regarding transmission of the virus, delayed or improper treatment of infections, complications from the treatment, and how treatment affects outcome.

Although cruise lines are not required to comply with U.S. OSHA regulations, Occupational Health or Occupational Medicine expert witnesses may testify regarding CDC guidelines and industry standard practices.

Elite Medical Experts provides top tier Cruise Ship Physicians, Infectious Disease specialists, and other expert witnesses to assist with COVID-19 claims against cruise lines. Contact Elite Medical Experts and speak with a physician or nurse on Elite’s experienced Case Strategy Team today.

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