Princess Cruise Lines Escapes Passengers' COVID-19 Suits

By Sarah Jarvis
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Law360 (July 14, 2020, 9:00 PM EDT) -- A California federal judge on Tuesday tossed two suits alleging Princess Cruise Lines put passengers in danger of contracting COVID-19, finding the passengers can't recover damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress just because they were afraid of contracting the virus.

U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner granted with prejudice a motion to dismiss brought by the Carnival Corp. subsidiary, saying that allowing the Grand Princess passengers leave to amend their suits would be futile. The plaintiffs, formerly quarantined passengers Ronald and Eva Weissberger in one suit and Michael and Wyonnie Austin and Kenneth and Lucille Nickens in the other, did not test positive for the virus or have COVID-19 symptoms.

The court said that under federal maritime law, plaintiffs seeking to recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress must satisfy the "zone of danger" test set forth in Consolidated Rail Corp. v. Gottshall , meaning plaintiffs can recover only if they suffered a physical impact from the defendant's negligent conduct or if they were placed in immediate risk of physical harm by the conduct. The passengers had argued that they fell into the second category.

But the court agreed with Princess' argument that the 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Metro-North Commuter R. Co. v. Buckley blocked the passengers' claims because they did not manifest symptoms of a disease.

"Given the prevalence of COVID-19 in today's world, plaintiffs' proposed rule would lead to a flood of trivial suits, and open the door to unlimited and unpredictable liability," Judge Klausner said.

The six plaintiffs are among approximately 100 passengers who filed nearly identical suits against Princess, each seeking $1 million in compensatory damages for emotional distress after they stepped aboard the Grand Princess vessel in San Francisco on Feb. 21, according to Princess.

The cruise line previously argued that the passengers weren't necessarily at actual risk of immediate physical injury simply because they embarked on the same giant cruise ship along with about 3,700 other passengers and crew — some of whom may have interacted with individuals from the Grand Princess' preceding cruise who were later diagnosed with COVID-19.

On Tuesday, Judge Klausner said the passengers' proposed reading of Metro-North would lead to "bizarre results."

"Under Metro-North, a passenger aboard the Grand Princess who was merely exposed to an individual with COVID-19 could only recover under the first prong of the zone of danger test if they either contracted COVID-19 or manifested symptoms of it," Judge Klausner said. "Yet under plaintiffs' proposed interpretation that same passenger could recover without manifesting any symptoms whatsoever so long as they cleverly pled their claim under the second prong of the test."

The Weissbergers' daughter, Florida personal injury lawyer Debi F. Chalik of Chalik & Chalik PA, said Tuesday that she was disappointed the judge felt these cases would open the floodgates for lawsuits against any business, "considering no other business has invited people in knowing COVID was running rampant."

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

The cruise industry has been hit with a bevy of coronavirus-related suits, including a proposed class action filed Monday in a California federal court against Princess and Carnival over an outbreak on a March cruise out of Chile on the Coral Princess, which left at least two dead and passengers trapped in their cabins for days, according to the complaint.

Princess is represented by Jeffrey B. Maltzman, Edgar R. Nield, Gabrielle De Santis Nield and Rafaela P. Castells of Maltzman & Partners PA.

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

The cases are Ronald and Eva Weissberger v. Princess Cruise Lines Ltd., case number 2:20-cv-02267, and Michael Austin et al. v. Princess Cruise Lines Ltd., case number 2:20-cv-02531, both in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

--Additional reporting by Joyce Hanson. Editing by Abbie Sarfo.

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