In a landmark ruling, an Australian judge held the world’s largest cruise operator, Carnival Corporation, accountable for the COVID-19 outbreak onboard the Princess Cruises’ Ruby Princess in March 2020. 

The verdict stems from a lawsuit led by Susan Karpik, a retired nurse who was aboard Ruby Princess along with her husband. The cruise, which sailed as the pandemic gained traction globally, later emerged as a factor contributing to 900 COVID cases and 28 unfortunate fatalities.

Carnival Corporation was found guilty of negligence on October 25 in a landmark court case in Australia, which could have severe consequences for the cruise industry. 

Australia’s Federal Court ordered Carnival Corporation, the company that owns Princess Cruises, to pay for the medical expenses incurred by Susan Karpik, who caught the virus onboard Ruby Princess in March 2020. Mr. Karpik bore the brunt of the virus, being hospitalized for two months, during which he battled death in an induced coma.

The ruling awarded Ms. Karpik 4,423.48 Australian dollars, plus interest, for her medical bills, albeit a sliver of the A$360,000 initially sought.

Ruby Princess Cruise Ship (Photo Credit: Ritu Manoj Jethani)

Susan Karpik: “I am pleased with this outcome as it brings a degree of comfort for all passengers who were worse off as a result of travelling on the Ruby Princess. It’s of course only a partial win as 28 lives were lost on this cruise. There are many individuals and families who will never recover from this loss.”

“As Ruby Princess passengers, we expected that if there was any risk to our safety, wellbeing, and health, they would never have taken the Ruby Princess out of Sydney Harbour.”

While a small victory for the Karpiks, this verdict sets a precedent that could pave the way for claims from hundreds or thousands of other passengers aboard the same voyage or other voyages where COVID outbreaks occurred.

Vicky Antzoulatos, joint head of class actions at Shine Lawyers, who represented Karpik, said: “While the judgment is a victory for Mrs Karpik and other passengers, nothing will compensate or bring back the 28 people who contracted COVID on the cruise ship and passed away as a result. Carnival should now do the right thing and compensate all the passengers rather than prolong the matter through further litigation,”

The incidents onboard Ruby Princess occurred just as cruise lines worldwide were suspending operations, something that will have been a deciding factor in the ruling.

Judge Agnus Stewart said in his ruling that Carnival knew or should have known about the risk posed by the virus, especially given an earlier influenza-like illness on a previous cruise onboard the 113,561 gross tons Ruby Princess that had to be cut short on 8 March 2020. 

The fact that earlier cases had already been discovered on the previous voyage, only heightened the risk of the virus being carried over to the subsequent trip, the judge said in his ruling, continuing by saying any reasonable person would have canceled the cruise.

Photo Credit: Ritu Manoj Jethani / Shutterstock

Carnival, on its part, is scrutinizing the judgment as it prepares to counter the ruling, as it opens the door to 1,000 other Australian passengers from the same voyage to put in their claims. The stakes could rise exponentially if Australia’s High Court allows 700 American guests to be included in the class-action lawsuit.

The ruling is being called the first significant class action win against a cruise operator worldwide, a rare win in an industry where filing lawsuits, especially class actions, is notoriously difficult. 

As the ruling came out, it will have shocked the executives of Carnival Corporation and other major operators such as Royal Caribbean Group, MSC Cruises, and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings. Across the cruise industry, lawyers are likely scrambling to preempt a potentially long and taxing legal battle.

The recent verdict in Australia against Carnival Corporation might also stir things up in the United States. Even though the legal rules are markedly different between Australia and the US, this case could give a blueprint for people in the US who faced similar issues on cruises and are considering taking legal action.

Certainly, the arguments used and the decisions made in the Australian case could help shape legal fights in US courts. However, how much this Australian case will impact US cases depends on the specific laws and rules around cruise lines and infectious diseases and how open US courts are to considering judgments from abroad.

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