Princess Cruise Lines Hit By Wave Of COVID-19 Suits

By Joyce Hanson
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Law360 (March 17, 2020, 10:49 PM EDT) -- Princess Cruise Lines Ltd. continues to get hit with suits in California federal court claiming the company let its Grand Princess vessel set sail on a new voyage the same day that it knew passengers disembarking from the ship's previous voyage were suffering COVID-19 symptoms.

A suit brought Tuesday by formerly quarantined couples Michael and Wyonnie Austin and Kenneth and Lucille Nickens, all passengers aboard the Grand Princess voyage of more than 3,000 people that departed out of San Francisco on Feb. 21, seeks damages of at least $1 million. The suit alleges that the cruise line, a Carnival Corp. subsidiary, negligently exposed them to the risk of getting sick aboard a ship infected with the easily contagious and sometimes deadly coronavirus.

"In continuing to sail with another 3,000 passengers including plaintiffs on Feb. 21, knowing that some of those passengers and crew had already been exposed to COVID-19, the defendant Princess has exposed plaintiffs to actual risk of immediate physical injury," the couples claimed.

The Austins and Nickenses' suit follows closely on the heels of individual suits brought since March 9 by Evelyne Abitbol, Steven Kurivial and Ronald and Eva Weissberger, who were passengers aboard the Grand Princess that departed on Feb. 21 but then stood anchored off the coast of San Francisco after March 4 due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

On March 12, the company said it was voluntarily pausing global operations of its 18 cruise ships for 60 days. As of Tuesday, all of the ship's 2,421 paid passengers have left the ship, and a plan to evacuate crew members via charter flights is being coordinated by the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, California, the city of Oakland and the Port of San Francisco, according to Princess Cruises.

The Weissbergers' daughter, Florida personal injury lawyer Debi F. Chalik of Chalik & Chalik PA, told Law360 on Tuesday that anger motivated her to file suit on behalf of her 74-year-old father and 69-year-old mother, whose age and health put them at higher risk of experiencing extreme symptoms, if not death, because of the virus.

"They're still quarantined at Travis Air Force Base," Chalik said. "I speak to them multiple times a day. They're hanging in there, but it's tough. They feel like they're in jail."

Chalik said she received requests from Abitbol, Kurivial, and the Austins and Nickenses to represent them in their negligence claims after they had read about her parents' suit against Princess, which is headquartered in Los Angeles and operates cruises from ports in San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles.

Separately, Singleton Law Firm APC, Watts Guerra LLP and Andres Pereira Law Firm PC on March 13 sued Princess in California federal court on behalf of passengers Debra and Michael Dalton, a couple from Missouri who also seek more than $1 million in damages over what they say is the cruise line's "lackadaisical approach" to the health and safety of passengers and crew members.

"It was foreseeable at all times that Princess could be hauled into court in the state of California for conduct that caused injuries," the Daltons' complaint said. "In fact, Princess' passenger contract requires claimants like plaintiffs in this action to bring suit to vindicate personal injury claims in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California."

Not only did the cruise line know that at least two passengers who disembarked the Grand Princess on Feb. 21 had COVID-19 symptoms, but it was aware that 62 passengers on the Daltons' cruise beginning on that date had remained aboard ship from the prior voyage, according to the suit.

"Those 62 carry-over passengers were exposed to the passengers that were confirmed to be infected," the Daltons said. "Some of the infected passengers to whom the carry-over passengers were exposed later died from coronavirus."

Princess Cruise Lines knew how dangerous it was to expose the Daltons and the rest of its passengers to COVID-19 considering that its Diamond Princess vessel suffered an outbreak of the virus in early February in Yokohama, Japan, according to the Daltons. That outbreak began with just 10 cases but rapidly multiplied to 700 cases "as a result of the flawed two-week quarantine on the ship," the Daltons said.

Princess Cruise Lines said in a statement emailed to Law360 on Tuesday that the company has been sensitive to the difficulties the COVID-19 outbreak has caused to guests and crew.

"Our response throughout this process has focused on the well-being of our guests and crew within the parameters mandated on us by the government agencies involved and the evolving medical understanding of this new illness," Princess said. "We have not been served with any lawsuit relating to this matter, and we will not comment on any pending litigation."

Counsel for the Daltons did not respond immediately to a request for comment Tuesday.

Ronald and Eva Weissberger, Michael and Wyonnie Austin and Kenneth and Lucille Nickens, Evelyne Abitbol and Steven Kurivial are represented by Debi F. Chalik of Chalik and Chalik PA and Michael A. Simmrin of the Simmrin Law Group.

Debra and Michael Dalton are represented by Gerald Singleton and Ross J. Peabody of the Singleton Law Firm APC, Mikal C. Watts and Alicia D. O'Neill of Watts Guerra LLP and Andres Pereira of the Andres Pereira Law Firm PC.

The most recent cases are Michael Austin et al. v. Princess Cruise Lines Ltd., case number 2:20-cv-02531, and Debra Dalton et al. v. Princess Cruise Lines Ltd., case number 2:20-cv-02458, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

--Additional reporting by Carolina Bolado. Editing by Bruce Goldman.

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