A year ago, infected cruise passengers foretold our future. Now, the courts are deciding who’s to blame.


Sun Sentinel

A year ago, before anyone knew how COVID-19 would obliterate our way of life, we got a taste by following the saga of thousands of cruise passengers stranded at sea. As desperate ships full of these sick and dying Americans and foreign nationals circled the coasts of the U.S., debates raged about what to do. Eventually, the passengers were accepted like war-torn refugees.

They became some of the first positive COVID-19 cases in our nation, and the first to die. Now, the legal system is trying to decide whom to blame.

A wave of federal lawsuits filed by former passengers over the last year provides an account of how cruise lines were cryptic about admitting whether the virus was on board, how they dealt with passengers presenting early symptoms and how some gave out free drinks to keep the party going despite sick people filling the infirmary.

The suits also raise tough questions: How much did cruise lines know in the early days of a rapidly evolving pandemic? How much responsibility do the passengers shoulder for stepping on board in the first place?

Many of these debates are playing out in South Florida because some cruise lines force passengers, no matter where they are from, to file lawsuits in our federal court. Thus far, a handful of cases against lines like Celebrity Cruises, Holland America and Princess Cruises have been dismissed or narrowed down by federal judges across the country.

Legal experts say cruise lines are protected by language tucked into tickets that strips passengers of rights and century-old laws that rule the open seas and ensure cargo more than top-dollar paying cruisers. The unprecedented nature of a global pandemic also works in the cruise lines’ favor, said Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University and former attorney on behalf of cruise lines.

“Cruise lines are not responsible for acts of God.”

Ivonne Dome, who spent weeks stranded on a Celebrity Cruise ship with her husband, Robert, say they get the bizarre nature of what ships confronted. But she said that didn’t give them the right to make empty promises, shield the truth of the situation and placate passengers instead.

“They didn’t fully disclose the risk of what we could all be facing,” said Dome, 54. “They encouraged people to go out and be together and go to the pool and join the DJ and the dancers and have a good time.”

Three days after the Domes finally disembarked in March 2020, Robert Dome, 64, tested positive for COVID-19. Ten days after that, he died in a New Jersey hospital.

‘Trip of a lifetime’

The story of the Domes’ cruise trip starts out like the stories of countless others recounted in the pages of over a dozen federal court complaints reviewed by the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Passengers, often dedicated cruisers like the Domes, arrived to ports as far flung as Fort Lauderdale, San Francisco and Argentina in late February and early March with plans to hit locales in South America, Hawaii and the Caribbean.

“This was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime,” said Dome, whose 14-day trip included stops around South America.

In the back of the minds of some passengers were the mishaps that had happened on the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess, two ships that were the first to experience outbreaks in early February and became examples for how quickly COVID-19 can spread on a ship.

Dome, who works in the fashion industry and has colleagues in Asia, said she was aware of the virus early on. In the days leading up to boarding the Celebrity Eclipse on March 1 in Argentina, she tried to cancel her trip, she said. But according to her, Celebrity representatives said she would not get any money back.

Attorneys for other passengers suing ships said their clients faced similar burdens.

Representatives for Celebrity, Holland America and Princess cruise lines declined to comment on the lawsuits.

But in court filings they have argued that in late February and early March little was known about asymptomatic spread of the virus, testing was in short supply and guidance from federal officials, such as the CDC, was changing on a near-daily basis. In essence, they were doing the best they could.

Dome had been on many cruises before, including Celebrity ships. She comes from a family of cruise superfans, including parents and siblings who take multiple trips a year.

She decided to let her guard down. “There was no reason for me not to trust them,” she said of the cruise line.

On Feb. 5, 2020, Celebrity sent an email to passengers acknowledging the coronavirus and promising to stop crew members or passengers from boarding the March 1 trip if they had traveled through parts of Asia.

They pledged to provide a sanitary environment on board and said the captain of the ship would make daily announcements to remind everyone of how to “stay healthy.”

But Dome said that as soon as she boarded, the virus never came up. “Everything was wonderful and there was never any mention of COVID,” she said. “We were going into a beautiful trip visiting beautiful places.”

A ‘false sense of reality’

What started as fun in the sun changed once ships were out on the sea. Passengers began to feel ill and ports of call began to close their doors. Meanwhile, on land, officials fretted.

On March 7, former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sat among cruise line executives in Port Everglades for a closed-door meeting about the virus. When they emerged, they stopped short of telling people not to cruise. “It is safe for healthy Americans to travel,” Pence said.

The very next day, the U.S. Department of State and the CDC recommended for U.S. citizens not to travel by cruises given the CDC’s findings about the “increased risk of infection of COVID-19 in a cruise ship environment.”

On March 13, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity’s parent company, suspended all future cruises for all lines, including Celebrity. By March 14, the CDC issued its first no-sail order. On March 15, the Celebrity Eclipse was barred from making what was supposed to be its final stop in Chile because officials there were concerned people on board might be infected.

According to court filings from other passengers who filed suit against Celebrity, there were whispers of infected passengers aboard the Eclipse as early as March 9, 2020. Dome said she did not catch wind of sick passengers until she visited the ship’s infirmary after the canceled stop in Chile to pick up blood pressure medication she was low on.

She said the small reception area was filled wall to wall. “You could tell at that point there were people that were sick,” she said. “What they had, you don’t know, but you start wondering.”

The Eclipse never put in place any quarantine or social distancing measures after the stop at Chile was canceled, according to numerous complaints filed by former passengers.

On March 17, 2020, the captain sent a letter to passengers saying they would be rerouted to disembark in San Diego. In the meantime, the ship would offer a “full schedule of entertainment, activities and dining options” to passengers and free booze. “All guests on board remain healthy and happy,” the letter said.

The approach stood in contrast to measures taken on other ships where infections seemed to be piling up faster.

A Princess Cruise ship that was stranded in early March put in place cabin quarantines, canceled activities and delivered all meals, according to federal court filings in California,

On a Holland America ship that departed Argentina on March 8, 2020, and later became stranded, federal court filings in Washington said room isolation started on March 22. Later, a separate ship was sent to house passengers who were not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Both ships quarantined until they were allowed to disembark in Port Everglades on April 3, 2020, after a heated standoff with local officials.

Even so, passengers who filed lawsuits against Princess Cruises and Holland America said both companies downplayed the severity of possible exposures on their ships before implementing their quarantines.

Meanwhile, on the Celebrity Eclipse, with the drinks flowing, Dome and other passengers described an increased party-like atmosphere. Dome said she started to question if ship leaders were telling the truth and began feeling uncomfortable in dining rooms.

Her husband, she said, never lost faith. On March 21, 2020, hundreds of passengers gathered shoulder to shoulder on the ship’s deck to honor pandemic workers risking their lives on land. Robert Dome was among them.

Looking back, Dome said she can’t blame him. Over and over, cruise staff repeated that there were no cases of COVID-19 on the boat, she said. “It was a complete false sense of reality,” she said.

Representatives for Celebrity Cruise declined to comment on their actions during the course of the trip.

Cases mount

As passengers were finally accepted on land, many migrated back to their homes in various states. Very few passengers, even those who presented symptoms, took a COVID-19 test on board a ship. But many ended up testing positive in hospitals almost immediately after they got home, according to court filings.

Dome said her husband began to present slight symptoms before he got off the Celebrity Eclipse on March 30, 2020. On April 2 he was diagnosed with COVID-19. Dome and her two sons, who had picked her and her husband up from the airport after they arrived home, also tested positive. On April 12, Robert Dome died.

Gerald Paul of Georgia, another passenger on the Eclipse, died even sooner. According to a complaint filed by his wife, Paul, 74, was feverish and fatigued by the time he got off the ship. On April 2, he died of COVID-19.

Alcides Landivar, another passenger on the Eclipse, returned home to Miami after the trip and tested positive for COVID-19 on April 4, according to a federal complaint he filed.

While the ship was stranded at sea, he didn’t have enough insulin and suffered blood clots in his femoral artery, according to his complaint. On April 15, his right leg was amputated above the knee.

The families of all three passengers filed lawsuits against Celebrity in February in South Florida. They are represented by Michael Winkleman, a Miami maritime attorney who has filed about 100 COVID-19 related class action, negligence or wrongful death lawsuits against cruise lines since March 2020.

Some cases have been dismissed and others have reached settlements. Most are still pending. Winkleman is optimistic about his clients’ chances but isn’t shy about recognizing the uphill battle they face.

“I don’t think the law has developed particularly well or favorably as it relates to passengers,” he said. “In a million ways, when you get hurt on sea, it is completely different than when you get hurt on land.”

‘He thought he was safe’

Many of the earliest COVID-19-related lawsuits filed against cruise lines were class action lawsuits with thousands of passengers signed onto them who argued that the companies put their lives at risk by setting sail and not doing enough to control the spread of the virus.

The cruise lines in court filings said they did their best to address the situation, given how there was little known at the start of the pandemic. But passengers said cruise lines could have been more forthcoming about the challenges they were facing. “I think that it was their responsibility to let customers know and then let the customer decide,” Dome said.

So far judges have sided with the cruise lines.

Large class action cases have been cut down to include only plaintiffs with proof they actually got the virus on a stranded ship or shortly after disembarking.

In February, a class action suit against Holland America was cut down by a Washington judge who said the decision to sail in early March of 2020 was not “outrageous” but instead was made “in the early weeks of what would become a global pandemic, when much remained unknown about COVID-19.”

The remaining cases circulating through the federal courts are those on behalf of passengers who say they have proof of catching COVID-19. The strongest cases, like Dome’s, include wrongful death claims on behalf of family members who died shortly after getting off the ships.

If they were to go the distance and establish liability, it could create ripple effects for the rest of an industry that is hoping to set sail from the U.S. soon, said Raul Chacon, a law professor at the University of Miami.

“I would expect cruise lines would probably look at that case to determine whether they face any exposure in the actions they take or fail to take to protect passengers.”

But so far, legal experts are dubious. They say claims will be complicated by the fact that most plaintiffs will be hard-pressed to prove exactly where they contracted COVID-19 because of the lack of available testing before and during their voyage. In court filings, cruise lines have already pushed back on claims that a passenger was infected on a ship by pointing out that some passengers were never tested on the ship.

The odds are also low because the law of the sea is different from the law of the land, say longtime students of maritime law such as Jarvis at Nova Southeastern. Much of it was written over a century ago, mostly to protect cargo and sailors, he said. “At the bottom of the list are passengers.”

Because of these laws, even if cruises are found liable in serious death cases, the amount of money they shell out is far less than it would likely be on land. Surviving families are limited to receiving money only for things such as funeral expenses and lost wages, not pain and suffering.

Winkleman said that in the case of cruise deaths, which often involve retirees such as Robert Dome, the amount a family can expect to be compensated from billion-dollar cruise lines is a far cry from what they would get if a similarly wealthy company such as a grocery chain were found liable for a death on land. “You could be talking about millions of dollars in damages versus thousands of dollars in damages,” he said.

Dome said she is less concerned about the money and more about the “dark side” of an industry her family once trusted so much. Her son, Alec Dome, 22, said he hopes lawsuits such as theirs can draw attention to the ways cruise lines are using old laws and the pandemic to rid themselves of any responsibility for what happened a year ago.

Alec grew furious recalling his father’s confidence whenever he called to warn him about what was happening on land this time last year. “The picture they gave him was: ‘We’re in the best situation possible,’” he said. “He thought he was safe and protected.”