Peril at Sea: Personal Injury Cases Arising from Accidents on Cruise Ships
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Personal injury cases arising from cruise line accidents present several problems for plaintiffs’ attorneys. First and foremost, lawsuits resulting from such accidents are normally governed by the cruise ticket, rather than general tort principles embodied in state case law or state statutes. In New Jersey, there is no state law specifically addressing cruise ship liability for personal injury cases. New Jersey Courts, however, have frequently upheld provisions of cruise tickets against New Jersey plaintiffs who were injured aboard cruiseships. The Courts have rested their decisions on the fundamental principle that cruise tickets create a binding contract between the carrier and the guest. As such, the terms of the ticket govern most disputes between the parties.
Most cruise line tickets require a plaintiff to provide written notice of a claim to the carrier within a specified period. For example, some cruise lines require notice of claim regarding suits for emotional injury, physical injury, or death within 185 calendar days of the accident. For all other suits, the carrier may require notice within 30 days of termination of the cruise. These timeframes are simply examples of notice requirements; actual deadlines to provide notice of claim vary by cruise line and potentially, by cruise ticket.
Much like the notice of claim requirements, most cruise tickets require plaintiffs to commence suit within certain timeframes. Such deadlines may occur within a few months of the incident giving rise to the lawsuit, so it is imperative that practitioners provide notice of claim and initiate a lawsuit relatively quickly after the accident. In Mirra v. Holland America Line, 331 N.J. Super. 86, 91-92 (App. Div. 2000), the Court upheld a contractual limit on the commencement of suit imposed on the plaintiff under the terms of the cruise ticket.
Frequently, the provisions of the cruise ticket will require any lawsuit to be filed in Florida. The ticket may even specify the particular court, such as the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami, or state the county in which such claims must be filed, such as a court of competent jurisdiction in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Cruise tickets may also contain provisions whereby the guest consents to the jurisdiction of the Florida courts and waives any objection to venue.
The cruise ticket will likely specify what law governs the action, as well. For example, the ticket may provide that U.S. General Maritime Law governs and, when not inconsistent with maritime law, the contract is governed by Florida state laws. New Jersey Courts have held that a forum-selection clause was valid and enforceable in a personal injury case against a cruise line. See Riccardello v. Carnival Cruise Lines, No. L-4700-07, 2008 WL 754488, at *1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. Mar. 24, 2008) (citing Carnival Cruise Lines v. Shute, 499 U.S. 585, 588 (1991)).
Cruise lines may also impose limits on recovery, in the event that a guest is successful in timely and properly filing a claim against the carrier. For example, the cruise ticket may require the guest to indemnify the carrier from damages for personal injury, death or damage, when such harm was caused directly or indirectly by the guest’s willful or negligent act or omission. The ticket may also specify that claims for emotional distress are allowed only where they result from physical injury to that guest.
If the ship does not embark, disembark, or call at any U.S. port, liability may be capped pursuant to foreign or international law. For example, some cruise lines cap damages for a guest’s death or personal injury pursuant to the Athens Convention Relating to the Carriage of Passengers and Their Luggage by Sea of 1974. This may result is significantly lower recoveries than would be available under U.S. federal or state laws.
Additionally, if the guest is injured while aboard the ship, he or she may be liable to the cruise line for services rendered by the cruise line’s medical professionals. This duty to indemnify the carrier may include all medical services provided on or off the vessel. Further, the ticket may provide that the carrier is not liable for losses or injuries arising from the performance of medical services aboard the vessel. The carrier can avoid such liability because, under the provisions of the cruise ticket, the carrier does not supervise or direct the actions of the medical professionals working on the ship. Instead, such medical services are provided by medical professionals who work directly for the guest.
Finally, guests on cruises may be barred from filing suit against the carrier for personal injuries suffered while on the vessel because, pursuant to the cruise ticket, they have assumed the risks associated with going on a cruise. For example, guests are often deemed to have assumed the risk of participating in any recreational or athletic activities, including snorkeling, swimming, and use of fitness center, whether such activities occur on or off the ship.
The guest may also be deemed to have assumed the risk of any injury, loss, or damage arising from risks and circumstances beyond the carrier’s ability to reasonably control or mitigate. Examples of such risks include acts of God or public enemies, restraints of governments, piracy, extortion, terrorists, hijacking, bombing, fire, explosion, collision, stranding, grounding, weather conditions, docking or anchoring difficulty, perils of the sea, perils of navigation, accident to or from machinery, boilers or latent defects, or desertion or revolt of the crew.
Many tickets also provide that guests assume the risk of their voyage being altered, shortened, lengthened or cancelled. Under such circumstances, guests are frequently not entitled to a partial or total refund.
If you are injured while on a cruise, you should contact an attorney to help you determine what your rights are and how best to protect them. The attorneys at Bramnick, Rodriguez, Grabas, Arnold & Mangan, LLC, are experienced trial attorneys who can help you navigate the intricacies of personal injury law and cruiseship accidents.
Mirra v. Holland America Line, 331 N.J. Super. 86, 91-92 (App. Div. 2000).
Riccardello v. Carnival Cruise Lines, No. L-4700-07, 2008 WL 754488, at *1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. Mar. 24, 2008).
Carnival Cruise Lines v. Shute, 499 U.S. 585, 588 (1991).