As previously reported, the Royal Caribbean cruise ship the Anthem of the Seas suffered damages, and caused personal injuries to passengers, when the cruise ship was navigated into the path of a severe storm. The ship was reported to list (tilted) almost completely on its side. Experts state that this storm was forecasted, and question the cruise ship company’s decision to head into the area. The cruise line defends its actions saying the storm was worse than it was forecasted, and had it known that the winds would get so strong they would never have directed the cruise ship into the area.
I have previously written about the decision of cruise ship companies to not cancel cruises despite forecasted storms. It is very costly to the cruise line to cancel a cruise or change its itinerary, and my experience in handling maritime cases over the past 30 years has been that the cruise line does what it can to avoid this. The companies believe their mega ships can withstand any type of weather, and take its chances that it will simply be an uncomfortable ride for its passengers.
Several times this decision making process on the part of the cruise lines has backfired, and resulted in serious damages to the cruise ship, passengers and crew.
Maritime Law states that a cruise ship company owes a duty of reasonable care to all of its passengers, which includes a duty to exercise reasonable care in making decisions on the itinerary of the ship, and to provide a reasonably safe and comfortable cruise for the passengers. Clearly heading into a forecasted storm of this magnitude is a breach of that duty.
Once there is a breach of the duty of care owed to the passengers, the passenger then must prove more than merely psychological damages or emotional distress. The passenger ticket indicates that there must be a physical impact or injuries before a passenger can bring a case for emotional distress or emotional damages. The law also requires more than simply claiming there was fear as a result of the storm and therefore emotional damages were suffered.
There is a test called the Zone of Danger Test, which states that if a passenger was within the zone of danger of the physical impact, and suffered emotional damages but no physical injuries, the passenger can recover for emotional damages. This would likely apply in cases such as what occurred with the Anthem of the Seas.
A lawsuit is being filed, claiming compensatory damages and punitive damages. This could be a good case to bring a claim for punitive damages, if allowed under the General Maritime Law, for being reckless and exposing the passengers and crew to the risks of injury and possibly death by heading into a storm of this magnitude. However, this is a difficult case because often times the Coast Guard and the authorities in charge of investigating such incidents are favorable to the cruise line. My firm once handled a case involving a cruise ship that headed into a well-forecasted storm, and all independent experts agreed it was crazy to go into the storm and risk the lives and safety of the passengers and crew. However, the governmental authority that issued the flag to the vessel, and even our United States Coast Guard, bought the cruise line’s argument that the incident was nothing but an unavoidable encounter with unexpected weather, which is the typical defense.