For many people, a cruise to Alaska is the trip of a lifetime. In fact, Alaska tops the list of where Americans most want to travel in 39 out of 50 states. 

However, for Donald and Patricia Gillingham, an elderly couple from Montana, their dream cruise quickly turned into a nightmare during their visit to Ketchikan, Alaska

Ketchikan is located on Revillagigedo Island near the southeast tip of Alaska. It’s a small port with a population of only around 8,000 people, but it is still a popular destination on Alaskan itineraries, with plenty for cruisers to do.

Ketchikan Cruise Port (Photo Credit: sljones)

Due to mobility challenges, the 91-year-old Donald opted to rent a scooter to make it easier to get around the popular port during their visit on September 9, 2023. But while riding a public bus, Donald’s scooter tipped over during a left-hand turn, severely injuring him in the fall. 

The couple was unaware of the extent of the man’s injuries until they returned to their cruise ship. He was evaluated by qualified medical professionals in the ship’s onboard clinic, although it’s unclear what ship they were sailing on, and again during a subsequent port call in Juneau, Alaska at the Bartlett Regional Hospital. 

At the hospital, doctors determined that the elderly cruiser was suffering from three broken ribs and a punctured lung. 

The couple is now suing the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, which operates the buses. The complaint was filed in federal court in Alaska on May 8, 2024, and accuses the borough of one count of negligence and one count of loss of consortium.

The complaint explains that Ketchikan’s public buses have straps to make sure accidents like this don’t occur, but that the use of the straps isn’t enforced. By not properly securing mobility devices like Donald’s scooter, the lawsuit alleges that the borough isn’t meeting the duty of care it owes its passengers.

“The Ketchikan Gateway Borough’s transit system policy states: ‘All buses have priority seating areas inside by the door for seniors and riders with limited mobility, plus space for mobility devices.’ However, this policy does not mention, nor explicitly require or advise the use of available straps to secure mobility devices while the bus is in operation,” reads the complaint.

Bus In Ketchikan, Alaska (Photo Credit: EWY Media)

The Gillinghams followed the bus driver’s instructions on where to park his scooter, but were not instructed to use the straps, as no policy of the Ketchikan Public Transit System currently mandates their use. The lawsuit alleges that if the straps had been used properly, the fall would likely not have occurred.

The failure of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough to enforce or even establish a policy requiring the use of straps to secure mobility devices, coupled with the driver’s failure to advise on their use, directly contributed to the accident and Mr. Gillingham’s injuries,” continues the complaint.

The consortium charge was filed on behalf of Donald’s wife, Patricia, who claims that the physical and emotional trauma suffered by her husband has negatively impacted their marriage. 

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As of the time of publication, Gillingham’s attorneys – Mark and Jon Choate of Choate Law Firm LLC – have not commented on the case publicly.

Ketchikan Borough Manager Ruben Duran stated in an email to KTOO, a local news station in Alaska, that he was aware of a potential lawsuit but had not yet been served with any official notice. 

Across all major cruise lines, the health and safety of all passengers and crew is the top priority. Ships typically have their own onboard security teams and surveillance cameras monitoring public spaces to quickly eliminate possible threats, and comprehensive medical centers to treat illnesses or injuries that occur at sea. 

But once in port, cruise lines have significantly less control over the environment, which limits their ability and responsibility to protect passengers. Typically, cruise ships are generally only required to provide safe methods for guests to get on and off the ship in each port of call. 

Cruise Ships Docked at Ketchikan Cruise Port (Photo Credit: Stillgravity)

Most cruise ships will also guarantee that they will wait for passengers on any shore excursions booked through the cruise line if they are delayed, and usually offer a vast assortment of activities in each cruise port. 

Read Also: What Happens If You Miss Your Cruise Ship?

That said, these excursions are typically operated by third-party providers. While these vendors are normally carefully vetted by the cruise lines, passengers who discover the excursion they booked is unsafe may still have difficulty getting their cruise company to take responsibility, who may argue that the independent tour company is really the one at fault.

Similarly, cruise lines can sometimes evade responsibility for injuries caused by its own crew members if the ship operator was reasonably careful and could not have foreseen the employee’s actions – and it’s standard for crew members to go through a stringent interview process, background checks, and training before joining their ships. 

All that said, things don’t go wrong very often – and when they do, the cruise lines frequently do take steps to compensate or remedy the situation in another way, if only as an act of good faith.

And at the end of the day, passengers also have a responsibility for their own safety as well, especially when in port. If something seems unsafe or questionable, travelers should use their best judgment on how to proceed and not hesitate to voice their concerns.

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