Federal Court Reinstates Lawsuit Against Cruise Line

September 7, 2012

(3:20 p.m. EDT) -- A federal appeals court has ruled that the family of 15-year-old Carnival passenger shot while independently exploring St. Thomas during a cruise may in fact sue the cruise line for negligence. The case had been dismissed by a Miami-based federal court judge back in August 2011.

A three-judge panel of the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, located in Atlanta, restored the negligence suit, saying the complaint did contain enough information to survive the motion to throw the case out, the Christian Science Monitor reported. The panel also ruled that further investigation of the underlying facts was permitted.

The teenage passenger was killed in July 2010 when she was caught in the cross-fire of a gang-related shootout near Coki Beach on St. Thomas, a mainstay port on Eastern Caribbean cruises. The beach, which is a popular tourist spot for swimming and snorkeling, also is next to the Coral World Marine Park. It is a lively tourist area with wandering vendors offering drinks, food, souvenirs and hair-braiding.

The girl's parents claimed in their suit that ship personnel should have warned them that that area had been the scene of violence in the past.

Although the suit was sent back to federal court in Miami, it may still not make it to trial. Based on our research of past cases a likely scenario is that the line will ask for a summary judgment, whereby the court can decide in favor of one party against the other without a full trial. Such decisions are usually issued on the merits of an entire case or on specific issues within the case. Summary judgments avoid the time and expense of a full trial.

For example, another lawsuit that centered on many of the same issues was recently dismissed by a judge during summary judgment. In that case, a Royal Caribbean passenger sued the line after she was raped while ashore in Cozumel. She also claimed the cruise line should have warned her of the potential dangers she faced in the port. A federal court judge dismissed the case, ruling she had shown no evidence that the cruise line knew of any danger, and therefore it was not obligated to warn her.

An out of court settlement is also a possibility, though an unlikely one.

Should the Carnival case eventually make it to court, however, it could help set a precedent for just how responsible cruise ships are for violent crimes (and even accidents) committed against passengers in port.

Among the issues the court could decide is whether cruise ship personnel have a duty to advise passengers of potential dangers in certain areas.

This question is also of significance in other lawsuits against cruise lines, including one against Royal Caribbean that was recently dismissed.

In both the Carnival and Royal Caribbean cases, the cruise lines argued for dismissal of the lawsuits, saying that asking cruise lines to warn passengers of every possible danger in every port of call was unreasonable. Both cruise lines also claimed they had no prior knowledge of specific cases of similar violent activity in the exact places the crimes affecting their passengers occurred.

In reversing the decision in the Carnival case, the panel said "The facts alleged in the complaint are plausible and raise a reasonable expectation that discovery could supply additional proof of Carnival's liability," the Christian Science Monitor reported.

But the appeals court also noted that a company has no duty to warn of an unforeseeable danger.

Whether the danger was indeed foreseeable is a question the cruise line was welcome to raise, either during a trial or in a motion for summary judgment, the panel said.

Vance Gulliksen, a Carnival spokesman, told Cruise Critic the line does not comment on pending litigation.

--by Dori Saltzman, News Editor