Norovirus Outbreak Leaves 200 Cruise Ship Passengers Ill; Was Poor Shipboard Sanitation to Blame?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A
Dawn Princess docked at Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Dawn Princess docked at Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Time and time again, our cruise ship lawyers have discussed the frequency of Norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships. The dreaded gastrointestinal illness has been responsible for many ruined cruise vacations, with thousands of victims succumbing to its debilitating effects. Though death from Norovirus is rare, the illness can turn a dream vacation into a nightmare, leaving those affected with terrible stomach cramps, diarrhea, and nausea.

Unfortunately, several cruisers have fallen prey to the stomach bug once more, this time on a Princess Cruises vessel. According to news reports, 200 passengers fell sick with Norovirus aboard the Dawn Princess this week. The ship was sailing to Australia from New Zealand when the bug spread across the vessel like wildfire.

Health officials say the victims were confined to their cabins, while Princess representatives claim they took measures to prevent further spread of the illness. But with 200 people sick with Norovirus, did crew members really do all they could to prevent the spread?

Princess Cruises said in a statement that “It takes relatively few cases to be reported onboard for even more stringent sanitation levels to be implemented. The containment response worked effectively and the number of new cases declined significantly.”

But what does Princess consider a few cases? 10 passengers? 50 passengers? 200 passengers?

Though Norovirus does spread very quickly on cruise ships due to the fact that there are several confined spaces on board, there should have been evidence that an outbreak was in the midst long before the virus managed to infect 200 passengers.

At first sign of Norovirus, cruise line officials should immediately begin quarantining those who display symptoms. There were a total of 1,500 passengers on board, which means roughly 13% of passengers were infected. That’s a pretty high number. Earlier last year, Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas saw the largest Norovirus outbreak in cruise ship history, with nearly 600 out of 3,000 passengers becoming infected, equaling roughly 20% of the passenger population. Though there were fewer passengers on board the Dawn Princess, 13% is pretty high of a number.

Two other Princess cruises vessels had Norovirus outbreaks this year alone: The Crown Princess (twice) and the Caribbean Princess. Do these figures say something about the sanitation on Princess ships? Not necessarily, but often, Norovirus spreads because of a lack of onboard sanitation.

Norovirus can be transmitted from consuming foods and liquids contaminated with the virus, by coming in contact with contaminated surfaces, or by having direct contact with infected persons, such as by sharing utensils. In order to prevent a Norovirus outbreak (or stop the spread of an already existing outbreak), cruise operators must take certain measures, such as ensuring public areas are sanitized, closing down buffets, quarantining infected persons, and providing plastic utensils to passengers, among others. Crew members must take great care to ensure they frequently wash their hands, and those who believe they may have fallen ill must be quarantined themselves, instead of continuing to work while sick.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) impose the Vessel Sanitation Program to ensure ships that call on U.S. ports are inspected at random to determine whether operators have proper sanitation methods in place. Ships are scored on a 100-point scale, with an 85 or lower considered to be a failing score. The Dawn Princes has only failed one CDC inspection in the past 24 years, which was on December 18, 1990. Other than that one time, the Dawn Princess has passed with scores usually in the high 90s. Neither the Crown Princess nor the Caribbean Princess have ever failed a CDC inspection.

In this case, a lack of shipboard sanitation does not appear to have been the culprit. It may have very well been an usually rapid spread of the illness, passengers may not have displayed symptoms right away, or passengers may have chosen not to report symptoms. Several factors could have been at play in this situation. Could Dawn Princess officials have done a better job at containing the spread of Norovirus this time around? Perhaps, but until the CDC reports any unsanitary practices, we should give Princess the benefit of the doubt.

There are times when accidents and illnesses occur on board a ship that cruise operators are not responsible for, nor could they have predicted or prevented them. But sadly, many cruise ship tragedies are caused by cruise operator negligence, which is why it is imperative that anyone who does suffer an illness or injury they believe was due to negligence contact a cruise ship lawyer for assistance right away in determining whether or not they have a viable case.

Though not many cruise ship Norovirus victims suffer serious health consequences from the illness, being quarantined can ruin a vacation, especially if the spread of the virus is exacerbated by a cruise ship’s poor sanitation. In many cases, cruise lines at least try to compensate Norovirus victims with some form of onboard credit or refund, but Princess officials have not made mention of whether or not they are going to offer any compensation for those who got sick on the Dawn Princess. Let’s hope for the best.