Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines, which together account for nearly 70 percent of the global cruise industry’s revenues, are facing an unprecedented legal storm after coronavirus outbreaks on board their ships left thousands ill and many people dead.
Those suing the operators include a US woman who lost her husband, a group of investors who took a financial hit and a Bulgarian crew member who was forced to take a 20-hour journey home despite being sick with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus.
More than 3,000 people on 43 ships have fallen ill from the coronavirus since Carnival’s Diamond Princess ship was quarantined off the port of Yokohama in Japan in early February. At the time, infections on board the ship made up the biggest cluster of cases outside of China.
But cruises continued through February and early March, with the industry only suspending new voyages when the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a no-sail order on March 14. The agency cited concerns over high transmission rates on cruise ships as well as signs that passengers getting off the vessels were spreading the disease in communities far from the water.
To date, at least 69 cruise passengers have died from COVID-19, according to ship-tracking site Cruise-Mapper. While the figure is a fraction of the rising global toll, critics allege the crisis on board the ships is a reflection of an industry culture that prioritises “profits over lives” and routinely disregards passenger and crew safety.
Susan Dorety, from the US state of Texas, is suing Carnival’s Princess Cruise Lines for gross negligence after her husband, Michael, died from the coronavirus in late March. The 68-year-old retired firefighter contracted the disease on board the Grand Princess while the couple were on a trip to celebrate their 40th anniversary.
“We were feeling great, excited,” Susan said, recounting the couple’s celebratory mood as they boarded the Grand Princess in San Franciso, California, on February 21. “We had full faith they wouldn’t let us on if there was a problem.”
But what the Doretys did not know was that at least one passenger on the ship’s previous voyage to Mexico had sought care on board for a respiratory illness. According to court documents, four days after the Doretys set off on their cruise, Princess Cruise Lines sent an email to all the passengers who had disembarked in San Francisco, notifying them of potential exposure to the virus.
But despite 62 passengers and the crew from the previous trip having remained on the ship for the Hawaii voyage, the people on board Diamond Princess were not informed.
Susan said the “first sign of trouble” came with the news that a previous passenger had died in hospital on March 4 – he was California’s first known death from the coronavirus. Five days later, the ship returned early to San Francisco, where the CDC sent in helicopters to drop off testing kits.
That was when Michael became ill, Susan said. He received no help from the ship’s doctors, she said, except for flu medicine even though he had a high fever and was experiencing sweats and chills. On March 20, he died alone in hospital.
Susan said she and her children listened on the phone as the doctor counted down his heartbeats.
“They could have gotten us help,” she told Al Jazeera. “A 911 call is a call for help. He spent 39 years answering 911 calls. That should have worked for him.”
Rusty Hardin, Susan’s lawyer, said the Grand Princess’s conduct was “outrageous” given the outbreak on the Diamond Princess in Japan. “They were aware of the dangers before,” he said.
“This cruise line company put money ahead of its passengers’ wellbeing, and it cost Michael his life.”
Since then, more than 100 others on the Grand Princess have tested positive for the virus, while the family of a second passenger who died from COVID-19 is also suing Princess Cruise Lines for negligence.
Meanwhile, Australian police have launched a criminal investigation into another of the company’s ships, the Ruby Princess, after it allowed passengers off the ship in Sydney in late March, fuelling a cluster of cases in the city.
A second cruise line owned by Carnival, Costa cruises, is also facing legal action with passengers on board the Costa Luminosa claiming the ship kept sailing despite knowing some passengers were showing coronavirus symptoms.
Princess Cruise Lines did not comment on the lawsuits, but told Al Jazeera it had “done everything possible to be open, honest and transparent, and to provide for the health and wellbeing of our guests and crew in the most earnest and compassionate way possible”.
Around the time of Michael Dorety’s death, another cruise ship was in St Nazaire in northwestern France, preparing for its maiden voyage. The country was already grappling with a major outbreak, and the ship had 1,400 crew members.
Alexandra Nedeltcheva was among them.
The 54-year-old Bulgarian said her supervisors at Celebrity Apex, owned by Royal Caribbean, refused to allow the crew to wear masks or step up sanitation measures on board the ship, despite rising numbers of cases across France.
“We didn’t get proper information,” she said. “We heard that some of the contractors coming on board the ship had tested positive. But they [the supervisors] said: ‘no, it’s not true.’ Then a couple of days later, we had a few crew members being taken off in wheelchairs and into hospitals.”
On March 25, all the ship’s crew were placed in quarantine. Nedeltcheva, along with more than 200 crew members, tested positive for the virus.
After just 10 days in isolation, she said she was put on a bus and then a commercial flight back to Bulgaria. “It was very hard,” she said, recounting her ordeal. “I’m sitting there worried I’m going to infect other people. When I came home, my condition worsened, and it took me much longer to recover.”
Nedeltcheva has now launched a class action lawsuit against Royal Caribbean in the US. She said she knows she will not get her job back, but hoped the lawsuit could “change something for future generations”.
“For them [the cruise firms], it wasn’t important for the little crew members to be safe. They don’t treat us as normal people. I don’t think that’s acceptable,” she said.
Royal Caribbean did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Norwegian, the third major cruise line, is facing legal action from a different front – investors.
A class-action lawsuit filed in Florida is seeking compensation for the plunge in the company’s stock price, which slumped from $20.5 per share to $9.65 between March 11 and 12 after media reports exposed Norwegian directing its sales staff to downplay the severity of the disease in order to keep bookings.
Talking points to passengers included, “The only thing you need to worry about for your cruise is do you have enough sunscreen?” and “The coronavirus can only survive in cold temperatures, so the Caribbean is a fantastic choice for your next cruise.” One manager reportedly said in an email: “Fact: Coronavirus in humans is an overhyped pandemic scare.”
The lawsuit said the company’s “wrongful acts and omissions, and the precipitous decline in the market value of the company’s securities” had caused investors to suffer “significant losses and damages”. Norwegian did not respond to calls for comment.
When asked about the allegations of mishandling and wrongdoing, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) said the industry responded to an “unprecedented crisis based on the information that was available when it was available and always under the guidance of prevailing health authorities”.
The trade group said cruise lines “took immediate and aggressive action in response to this crisis – with policies and protocols that went above and beyond the actions of other industries”. CLIA also said it had submitted proposals to the US government on a framework for resuming operations, including more stringent boarding procedures, monitoring capabilities and quarantine arrangements.
Legal experts say the crisis underscores the need for more oversight of the industry. Most cruise lines are registered in Caribbean tax havens, allowing them to skirt labour and environmental laws in Europe and the US.
James Walker, a maritime lawyer, said cruise operators had not seen “litigation on this scale before”.
“I think there is going to be ample proof of negligence and a failure to warn and a failure to be transparent,” he said.
Still, cruise firms are reporting a surge in bookings for when operations resume in August.
“People like cruising. The industry has over 90-percent satisfaction rate,” said Andrew Coggins, professor of management at the Lubin School of Business at Pace University.
However, cruise lines will still have to undertake a lot of education on new safety protocols, he said.
“Though the industry is resilient, we are in uncharted waters,” he added. “But once we start to come out of this, the industry will slowly start to pick up again and then once the vaccine is developed, we should see a return to previous numbers.”