Vacation danger: Is cruise ship liable for perils on shore excursions?

A federal appeals court restored a lawsuit against Carnival Cruise Lines in the case of a 15-year-old passenger killed in the crossfire of a gang shooting on the island of St. Thomas.

Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Lines/Reuters
The Carnival Pride cruise ship and Pride of Baltimore sail together, in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2009.

A federal appeals court on Wednesday restored a negligence lawsuit against Carnival Cruise Lines in the case of a 15-year-old passenger who was killed by cross-fire during a gang-related shootout near a popular tourist beach in the US Virgin Islands.

The girl’s parents filed suit against the cruise company, claiming ship personnel should have warned the family that the area near Coki Beach on the island of St. Thomas had been the scene of violent criminal activities.

The case is potentially important because it could further define to what extent cruise ship companies – part of a $29 billion industry – may be held liable for criminal acts perpetrated on passengers exploring various ports of call.

With the increasing popularity of cruising, there are also increasing reports of cruise ship passengers on shore excursions being robbed and, sometimes, killed.

At issue in Chaparro v. Carnival Corporation was whether personnel on the Carnival cruise ship “Victory” owed a duty to advise passengers of potential dangers in certain areas of the Virgin Islands.

According to the lawsuit, a Carnival employee suggested the family take a day trip to Coki Beach after the ship docked at St. Thomas on July 12, 2010. The suit says ship personnel knew or should have known about violent gang activity and high crime rates in various parts of the Virgin Islands – including that a gang member’s funeral was set for that afternoon.

The family, from San Juan, Puerto Rico, did not participate in a Carnival-endorsed shore excursion. Instead, they made their own arrangements to travel from the ship to and from Coki Beach. The shooting happened during the return trip.

The family was riding in an open-air bus and encountered a traffic jam near the site of the gang members’ funeral. As the bus waited on the road, a gun-fight broke out, according to court documents.

Passengers ducked. One gang member allegedly sprayed the bus with gunfire. That’s when the teen, Liz Marie Perez Chaparro, who was celebrating her quinceañera, was shot in the side.

An ambulance was called. It never arrived. Finally, the bus sped away to a hospital. The teen died in her father’s arms.

In federal court in Miami, Carnival argued that the lawsuit must be dismissed. “Carnival stops at a multitude of ports all over the world. It cannot reasonably be expected to monitor or be aware of every single danger that may arise on any given street throughout a port city and beyond,” the company’s lawyers said in their brief.

“Imposing upon cruise lines a duty to warn of each and every danger that exists in its hundreds of ports of call stretches the traditional duty of care too far,” the lawyers said.

Lawyers for the family countered that Carnival knew that its passengers might visit Coki Beach, a popular tourist destination which was promoted by Carnival’s own excursions.

“It is well established that cruise lines such as Carnival have an obligation to warn of reasonably foreseeable risks that exist even beyond the gangplank,” the family’s lawyers said in their brief. They added that the duty to warn was not limited to passengers on the ship’s own shore-bound excursions.

A federal judge in Miami dismissed the family’s lawsuit in August 2011. He said the complaint did not offer enough evidence of negligence by Carnival officials to permit the case to proceed to trial.

The judge invited the lawyers to submit a new complaint with more evidence. Instead, they filed an appeal.

In reversing the Miami judge’s decision, a three-judge panel of the Eleventh US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta said the complaint contained enough information to survive the motion to throw the case out and permit further investigation of the underlying facts.

“The facts alleged in the complaint are plausible and raise a reasonable expectation that discovery could supply additional proof of Carnival’s liability,” the appeals panel said.

The appeals court noted that Carnival had argued that Liz Marie’s death was unforeseeable, and that a company has no duty to warn of an unforeseeable danger.

But the judges added that the complaint charges that “Carnival was aware of gang-related violence and crime, including public shootings, in St. Thomas generally and near Coki Beach specifically.”

The appeals court said Carnival’s lawyers could raise the issue of whether the danger was foreseeable later in the case in a motion for summary judgment or during a trial.

The appeals court action remands the case to the federal court in Miami.

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