Workers' COVID-19 Exposure Claims 'Trivial,' Cruise Line Says

By Y. Peter Kang
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Law360 (June 24, 2020, 6:07 PM EDT) -- Celebrity Cruises has asked a Florida federal court to toss a proposed class action alleging that it failed to adequately protect thousands of workers on its ships during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the named plaintiffs' claims are "trivial" because they only had cold- and flu-like symptoms.

Celebrity, a unit of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., said in a motion to dismiss Tuesday that Alexandra Nedeltcheva and two other crew members who were exposed to the novel coronavirus while working on a ship off the coast of France can't recover money damages for "mere exposure."

"Celebrity is moving to dismiss the amended complaint, including on the basis that the plaintiffs' claims are trivial. In doing so, Celebrity in no way seeks to trivialize COVID-19," the filing says. "The plaintiffs in this action did not suffer the tragic consequences that are sometimes caused by COVID-19. Claims seeking to recover money damages for having cold- and flu-like symptoms, and for mere exposure to illness, are not actionable."

Nedeltcheva, who works on the new Celebrity Apex that was set to begin sailing the Mediterranean this summer, said in her April complaint that Celebrity failed to heed warnings about how quickly the coronavirus could spread on cruise ships, and when measures were taken to protect passengers' safety, crew members were ordered to continue operations as normal.

An amended complaint filed June 10, which noted that Nedeltcheva contracted COVID-19, added two other crew members as named plaintiffs, Andrew Coleman and Julia Melim, who were exposed to the virus, according to Celebrity.

But the company said Tuesday that unlike Nedeltcheva, who exhibited symptoms such as severe cough and fatigue, Coleman and Melim were asymptomatic and never contracted the virus. Celebrity said the amended complaint is not specific enough and instead lists the dozens of possible ways the company allegedly breached its duties to its workers.

"The amended complaint should be dismissed at the threshold because it is a shotgun pleading," the company said. "Courts in this district have held, time and again, that this shotgun style of pleading is inappropriate and requires dismissal."

In addition, Celebrity asserts that the alleged injuries suffered by the trio are intangible and incapable of being measured, therefore the suit should be tossed.

"These three plaintiffs thus propose to assert claims in federal court seeking to recover money damages because Ms. Nedeltcheva had cold- and flu-like symptoms, and because Ms. Melim and Mr. Coleman were exposed to the virus," it said.

To allow the case to move forward, Celebrity said, would "open the metaphorical floodgates" for similar claims.

"If these plaintiffs can sue, then so too can the restaurant patron who catches a cold because diners at a nearby table were sick and sneezing, or because the patron's table was not cleaned well enough between seatings and one of the table's prior occupants was sick," the company said.

An attorney for the plaintiffs, Michael Winkleman, told Law360 on Wednesday that it's "telling" how Celebrity and its parent company Royal Caribbean have characterized the crewmembers' claims.

"It only reaffirms my belief and opinion that to Royal Caribbean, its crewmembers are like pieces of tissue paper: pull one out, use it, throw it away and another appears in its place," he said.

An attorney for Celebrity did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nedeltcheva is represented by Jason R. Margulies, Michael A. Winkleman, Jacqueline Garcell and L. Alex Perez of Lipcon Margulies Alsina & Winkleman PA.

Celebrity is represented by Sanford L. Bohrer, Alex M. Gonzalez and Scott D. Ponce of Holland & Knight LLP and Jerry D. Hamilton, Evan S. Gutwein and Annalisa Gutierrez of Hamilton Miller & Birthisel LLP.

The case is Nedeltcheva et al. v. Celebrity Cruises Inc., case number 1:20-cv-21569, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

--Additional reporting by Joyce Hanson and Carolina Bolado. Editing by Stephen Berg.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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