Tuesday’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Miami, is just the latest litigation targeting the beleaguered cruise industry, which has had coronavirus outbreaks on dozens of ships around the world. And experts expect it won’t be the last.
“It doesn’t surprise me that some people are, no pun intended, testing the waters to see if these cases are viable,” said Michael Karcher, a maritime lawyer who teaches admiralty law at the University of Miami School of Law. “Most passenger tickets have a one-year statute of limitations by contract. There may be some waiting to see what happens.”
Costa Luminosa left Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on March 5 after a trip during which a man had to be removed on Feb. 29 because of heart problems, the cruise line said. He eventually tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and later died.
On the voyage that departed March 5, a woman from Italy and her husband left the ship in Puerto Rico on March 8 because she was suffering from breathing issues, according to the operator; both later tested positive for the virus.
“When that happened, on that day in Puerto Rico, the cruise should have ended or they should have gone back to Fort Lauderdale and gotten everyone home,” said maritime attorney Michael Winkleman. “Instead of doing that, they dragged all these folks across the Atlantic.”
At that point, he said, the Italian ship was “a coronavirus time bomb.”
Luminosa was not allowed to stop at its next scheduled port, Antigua, before crossing the ocean. The lawsuit said if passengers had known about the risk, they would have fled the ship in Puerto Rico.
“Instead, passengers were trapped on the vessel, and at an actual and significantly increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus, while it sailed across the Atlantic Ocean for seven days,” the complaint says.
Passengers were not isolated in their rooms until March 15, the day after the ship learned that the couple who disembarked in Puerto Rico had tested positive, according to the cruise line. The lawsuit said the company discovered that the man who disembarked on Feb. 29 was positive for the virus after the ship left Puerto Rico.
“It was a certainty that it was going to spread like wildfire,” Winkleman said. Hundreds of passengers eventually disembarked in France, where, authorities said, 36 people tested positive and 75 either showed symptoms or came into contact with those who were infected, according to Reuters.
Costa Cruises, a subsidiary of Carnival Corp. based in Italy, did not immediately reply to a request for comment. Carnival is also the parent company of Princess Cruises, which by March 5 was dealing with what turned out to be its second coronavirus outbreak on a ship — a history the complaint points out.
The lawsuit faces several challenges: Costa’s ticket contract says passengers must file claims in Genoa, Italy, but Winkleman is challenging that provision, as well as one that seeks to limit the ability of passengers to file a class-action suit.
Attorneys are asking the court to certify the suit as a class action, which it says includes an estimated 2,000-plus passengers who sailed on Costa Luminosa voyages starting Feb. 24 and March 5. Winkleman said the firm has been contacted by roughly 100 so far.
Paul Turner, 50, a golf instructor and tournament coordinator in Northern Wisconsin, is the representative party for the rest of the plaintiffs in the case. He just finished his 14-day self-quarantine at home after leaving the ship on the night of March 19.
Turner said workers on Luminosa told him it was extremely clean and no one was sick when he boarded; he only heard from other passengers after a couple of days that someone had been sick and dropped off during a previous sailing. And, he said, he received no information about sick passengers being left in Puerto Rico, either. It was a blow when the captain said no one could leave in Antigua on March 9, he said.
“I could see the island from my window,” said Turner, who took the cruise with his girlfriend. “At that point, now I knew I wanted off the ship. And they weren’t stopping there.”
Once he was finally on his way home after getting off the ship in Marseille, France, Turner decided to contact an attorney. He said he passed around an airsickness bag “very discreetly” to collect names and contact information for fellow shipmates.
“No matter what happens, something needs to get fixed,” he said. “Whether it’s the way these corporate operations get handled or whether it’s some oversight of them or help with the seniors.”
Winkleman said his firm is in the process of filing similar actions involving other coronavirus outbreaks on cruise ships. Last month, a man and a woman who were quarantined aboard the Grand Princess in California filed suit against Princess Cruises over its handling of an outbreak. Last week, attorneys in Australia said they are considering a class-action suit against Princess Cruises and local authorities over another ship with coronavirus cases, the Ruby Princess, according to Australian media.
“It’s become apparent that the cruise industry as a whole grossly mismanaged the coronavirus outbreak, and it’s clear that there will be a significant amount of litigation on the horizon related to it,” Winkleman said.
An earlier version of this story said a Luminosa passenger had tested positive for the novel coronavirus before the next sailing took place. He was removed from the ship on February 29, but did not test positive until the next voyage was underway.