Outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness aboard cruise ships are now a fairly common occurrence affecting thousands of passengers every year. However, stricken passengers have generally had a hard time recovering anything more than partial refunds, and/or discounts on future travel, from the operators of disease-carrying ships. Even these token forms of compensation have been difficult to secure unless the outbreak necessitated some cancellation or change in itinerary. Cruise contracts often contain limitations on compensation for illnesses contracted on board, and challenges associated with proving negligence on the part of the cruise operator can also prevent passengers from obtaining meaningful redress for their lost cruise investment and the physical and mental impacts of their illnesses.
Repeat Outbreaks Put Ship Owner on Undeniable Notice
Twenty-five passengers who sailed on five separate cruises aboard Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas are now, however, trying to buck this trend. According to a report in the British news publication Southern Daily Echo, these passengers, all of whom were affected in some way by infectious gastrointestinal illnesses that broke out during cruises that originated in Southampton, England during 2010 and 2011, have filed suit against Miami-based Royal Caribbean International and its sister entity Celebrity Cruises. In so doing, they are hoping to demonstrate that once it became apparent that Independence of the Seas was plagued with pathogens, Royal Caribbean had, but did not meet, an obligation to remedy the situation.
According to the Southern Daily Echo, some of the conditions that signaled sub-par hygiene on the Independence of the Seas included the presence of sewer flies in bathrooms, rotting food debris left under passenger beds between cruises, dirty cutlery and glasses in dining areas, undercooked food, and improperly refrigerated food. Once passengers on the unhygienic vessel became ill, moreover, medical staffing was inadequate to cover the needs of those confined to their cabins, and medical staffers caring for the sick often failed to wash their hands and use protective gloves. The severity of illness was so great, in many instances, that ambulances had to be summoned to the ship’s various ports of call.
Federal Disease Control Monitoring Has Not Sufficed.
The particular organism or organisms that sickened the Independence of the Seas passengers has not yet been referenced in press reports, but according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 90% of diarrheal disease outbreaks that occur on cruise ships are traceable to norovirus. In February, 2012, for example, Princess Cruises reported 499 cases of norovirus to CDC over a two-day period, alone, contracted on the Fort-Lauderdale-based Crown Princess and Ruby Princess. The frequency and scale of outbreaks like these begs the question of why CDC monitoring is not more effective in preventing recurrences. The answer may lie in the scoring system used in CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program.
According to the March 24, 2012 edition of Food Safety News, the Crown Princess and Ruby Princess both received perfect scores by CDC in Vessel Sanitation Program inspections that directly preceded their February, 2012 norovirus outbreaks. The actual reports for those inspections, however, show that conditions were far from perfect. On the Crown Princess, CDC noted violations of cooking temperature requirements, failures to provide disinfectants in diaper changing stations, an absence of rope guards to prevent rodents from entering the ship during docking, and a complete lack of operating procedures for returning the ship to normal operation after a disease outbreak. On the Ruby Princess, CDC noted failures by sick crew members to report for timely medical attention, improper procedures for disinfecting areas after fecal accidents, and failures to monitor recreational water facilities for necessary levels of chlorine disinfectant.
It is therefore not surprising that the last four CDC Vessel Sanitation Program inspections of Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas yielded passing grades even though a succession of five cruises that sailed just before, and then after, the last of those inspections sickened and otherwise injured the passengers who are now suing Royal Caribbean for damages. As Food Safety News warned, in its March 24 edition, it’s a good idea for prospective cruise ship passengers to read CDC inspection reports on the ships they plan to board, but it’s equally important for them not to conclude, from satisfactory inspection scores, that they will be protected against pathogens that have very likely remained on board despite CDC monitoring.
If you have been affected by an infectious illness contracted during a cruise consult with cruise ship injury attorneys, such as Gerson & Schwartz, who have the overview and experience needed for evaluating your particular circumstances in light of all applicable principles of liability. For further information on how we may be able to assist, please contact our personal injury law firm us at (305) 371-6000