Death on the High Seas: Federal Court Applies Maritime Wrongful Death Statute to Cruise Ship Passenger Who Dies On Shore

The global cruise industry, still trying to weather the storm of the COVID-19 pandemic and its chilling effect on tourism worldwide, received one favorable signal from the U.S. federal court system last week in the case of Toyling Maa et al v. Carnival Corporation and PLC et al, 2:20-CV-06341, C.D. Cal. On the eve of the U.S. Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) potentially lifting its embargo on cruise ship sailings on September 30, Carnival Corporation & PLC, and Princess Cruise Lines, Ltd. (“Carnival and Princess”) won an understated but major victory in the lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

Death on the High Seas: The Lawsuit

Mrs. Toyling Maa had sued Carnival and Princess on behalf of her deceased husband Wilson. She claimed that Carnival and Princess’s negligence had caused her and her husband to contract COVID-19 while aboard the Coral Princess  in April 2020, leading to her husband’s death.

On March 31, 2020—26 days into their South American cruise—the captain ordered all guests to quarantine in their rooms. On the same day, Mrs. Maa began to feel ill and seek medical attention. Five days later, the ship docked in Miami. Her husband—still on board with his wife—fell ill and was put on a ventilator. The cruise ship’s medical staff allegedly failed to call an ambulance for him for seven hours after they determined that the ventilator was ineffective. He was taken to the hospital and died two hours later. The next day, Mrs. Maa was also taken to the hospital, where she remained in treatment for over two weeks before being discharged and returning home to California.

Mrs. Maa claimed in her lawsuit that Carnival and Princess negligently exposed her and her husband to COVID-19 while on the cruise. But, notably, her complaint alleged that Carnival and Princesss’s negligent acts took place not just aboard the Coral Princess, but also on land at the cruise line’s home base in Santa Monica, California and on the ship while it was docked in the Port of Miami.

This complaint was likely an attempt to avoid the limitations on damages for the family members of those who die while on a vessel on the “high seas”—a term defined, for the purposes of this law, as more than three nautical miles from shore. These limitations are set in stone by the Death on the High Seas Act (“DOHSA”). Passed by Congress in 1920, the law was revolutionary at the time for permitting family members to sue and collect damages against the negligent ship owner on behalf of seamen who were killed on the high seas.

However, DOHSA pales in comparison to the litany of damages available under modern wrongful death statutes. Most wrongful death statutes presently in effect permit a plaintiff to recover “general damages” or “pain and suffering” due to the death of their family member. But DOHSA makes no such offering. Instead, DOHSA limits damages to the actual costs incurred by the family member’s death: funeral expenses, lost present or future financial support, psychological counseling, and other financial burdens incurred when a loved one dies.

Accordingly, a plaintiff who sues under DOHSA is likely to receive a substantially smaller damages award than a plaintiff who can show that the negligence that caused her loved one’s death occurred on shore—or, at least, within three nautical miles of shore.

Death on the High Seas: The Court’s Ruling

Here, the court dismissed Mrs. Maa’s lawsuit without prejudice, holding that it did not matter that Mr. Maa died on-shore in a Miami hospital, or received most of his treatment while the ship was docked in the Port of Miami (well within the three-mile limit). Instead, the court focused on the fact that he contracted COVID-19 while on the high seas—during the Coral Princess’s voyage from Argentina to Miami via Barbados. While Carnival and Princess’s negligence in other locations (from its California office to the docks of the Port of Miami) may have contributed to his death, the only fact that mattered was that Mr. Maa became sick while sailing on the high seas. Therefore, Mrs. Maa (should she choose to re-file her lawsuit) would only be entitled to DOHSA damages.

The Impact of the Ruling for cruise lines

This ruling may have significant impacts for those aggrieved passengers who expect large damages awards for losing loved ones while aboard cruise ships during a global pandemic. Where most cruise line customers are elderly passengers with little-to-no remaining earning capacity, their family’s DOHSA settlement may be little more than the cost of the flight home, the funeral, and a few therapy sessions.

On the other hand, this ruling will likely give a supportive push to cruise lines that are anxious to return to business. As we look to the CDC’s pending release of the cruise ship embargo, cruise lines may look to this decision as a port in the storm of an uncertain tourism industry.