Charlene Hicks—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
The COVID-19 pandemic has proven disastrous for cruise lines and passengers alike, with multiple coronavirus outbreaks and lengthy quarantine periods imposed. The resulting lawsuits have met with mixed results.
In Weissberger v. Princess Cruise Lines, Ltd., No. 2:20-CV-02328-RGK-SK, 2020 WL 3977938 (C.D. Cal. July 14, 2020), plaintiffs claimed that Princess Cruise Lines was negligent and/or grossly negligent because it had knowledge that a disembarking passenger had symptoms of COVID-19 but it made the conscious decision to continue sailing with 3,000 passengers aboard. The Weissbergers claimed emotional distress damages arising from the ship's quarantine and the associated trauma from fear of developing the virus.
The court recharacterized the negligence counts as claims for the negligent infliction of emotional distress. Id. at *2. From there, the court invoked the "zone of danger" test applicable to maritime cases, which "limits recovery for emotional injury to two categories of plaintiffs: (1) 'plaintiffs who sustain a physical impact as a result of a defendant's negligent conduct'[;] and (2) plaintiffs 'who are placed in immediate risk of physical harm by that conduct.'" Id. (quoting Consol. Rail Corp. v. Gottshall, 512 U.S. 532, 547-48 (1994)) (Weissberger court's emphasis).
Although the Weissbergers' action was based solely on the second prong, the court refused to allow them to bypass the requirement under the first prong that they allege either that they contracted the disease or exhibited symptoms of it. Id. Because the Weissbergers had not contracted COVID-19 or suffered any symptoms, their claims were not actionable.
The case of Parker v. Princess Cruise Lines Ltd., No. 2:20-CV-03788-RGK-SK, 2020 WL 6594994 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 18, 2020), reached the same result, except that the court allowed the action to proceed as to those passengers who did experience symptoms consistent with the virus.
In Archer v. Carnival Corp., No. 2:20-CV-04203-RGK-SK, 2020 WL 7314847 (C.D. Cal. Nov. 25, 2020), the court found that both Princess Cruise Lines and its parent, Carnival Corporation, could be liable as Carnival allegedly exerted control over Princess's safety procedures to establish an independent duty of care. Further, the cruise lines had "actual or constructive notice of the risk-creating condition" such that they owed plaintiffs "a duty of care to warn them of potential dangers the entire time Plaintiffs were on the ship." Id. at *8 (court's emphasis). Liability for punitive damages was not excluded as a matter of law. Id. at *9.
As these cases demonstrate, cruise lines are free from liability for most emotional distress-related COVID-19 cases. Because some claims are actionable, however, the ultimate extent of the industry's exposure to tort liability remains to be seen.