By Brian Baresch
The Eleventh Circuit has revived a suit accusing Royal Caribbean Cruises of negligently failing to protect a teenage girl who says nearly a dozen passengers plied her with alcohol and raped her, finding the girl’s argument that the company and its crew breached its duty of care to her compelling.
The plaintiff, identified as K.T., says she was 15 when she went on a weeklong post-Christmas cruise with her family in late 2015. On the first night, crewmembers saw but did nothing as the adult male passengers bought her drinks and then steered her towards a private cabin when she was “obviously incapacitated,” where they raped her, according to the complaint.
A Florida federal court had tossed the case because it was unconvinced that the cruise line had a responsibility to prevent the alleged assault or that its lack of action was to blame, court documents show.
But a three-judge panel reversed that dismissal Wednesday and sent the case back to district court, finding that Royal Caribbean knew or should have known about the dangers of sexual assault on its ships, particularly in the case of minors, and that its duty of ordinary reasonable care included taking steps to prevent such a situation.
“And it is self-evident from the allegations of the complaint that but for Royal Caribbean’s breach of its duties of care to K.T. she would not have been brutalized and gang raped,” the judges said. “If the allegations are true, Royal Caribbean proximately caused the alleged injuries. The complaint states a claim against Royal Caribbean.”
K.T. and her mother brought the personal injury suit against the cruise company in December 2016, but U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore threw it out in August 2017, saying the family had failed to state a claim.
The girl appealed to the Eleventh Circuit in September 2017, and the court held oral arguments last November.
On Wednesday, the court found that the danger of sexual assault on board was foreseeable and known and that Royal Caribbean thus did in fact have a duty of ordinary reasonable care to K.T.
That duty “included the duty to monitor and regulate the behavior of its passengers, especially where minors are involved,” the panel said.
“Again, if the allegations of the complaint are true, Royal Caribbean’s approach to protecting passengers from being sexually assaulted and raped certainly could be improved,” they said.
U.S. Circuit Judge Ed Carnes, who wrote the court’s opinion, added a concurring opinion of his own that took judicial notice of publicly available data suggesting that Royal Caribbean was aware of the risk of sexual assaults on board its ships.
Cruise lines have been required to keep a record of complaints about crimes that occur on board their ships, including sexual assault, since 2010. These complaints must be reported to the FBI and the U.S. Department of Transportation, which then compiles the data into Cruise Line Incident Reports.
According to these incident reports, 20 sexual assaults committed by passengers on Royal Caribbean cruises were reported between 2010 and September 2015 — nearly one-third of the total reported for all cruise lines during that period, Judge Carnes said.
Those numbers represent only the matters that were no longer under investigation by the FBI at the time of the report, not the total number of complaints lodged, he added.
Various congressional reports, some going back a decade before K.T.’s allegations, cited sexual assaults as a “serious problem” and the “leading crime” on board cruise ships, constituting about half of all crimes on the high seas reported to the FBI, according to the filing.
“The Cruise Line Incident Reports, after all, are based in part on information Royal Caribbean itself submitted,” Judge Carnes said. “And it would be absurd to suggest that a multi-billion dollar business like Royal Caribbean was not aware of congressional reports about the problem of sexual assaults aboard its cruise ships.”
Carol L. Finklehoffe of Lipcon Margulies Alsina & Winkleman PA, who represents K.T., called the ruling a “landmark decision” determining that cruise lines must warn their passengers about the risk of sexual assault on their vessels and that the public Cruise Line Incident Reports puts these companies “on notice” of the potential for sex crimes.
“This decision shines a much needed light on the hidden epidemic of rapes and sexual assaults on the high seas,” Finklehoffe told Law360 on Thursday.
A spokesman for Royal Caribbean declined to comment on the pending litigation but said the company takes K.T.’s allegations “very seriously.”
“The safety and security of our guests is our top priority,” he said.
Judges Ed Carnes, Robin S. Rosenbaum and Frank M. Hull sat on the panel for the Eleventh Circuit.
K.T. and her mother are represented by Michael A. Winkleman, Carol L. Finklehoffe and Jason R. Margulies of Lipcon Margulies Alsina & Winkleman PA.
Royal Caribbean is represented by Darren W. Friedman, Catherine J. MacIvor and Karen Foy Grossman of Foreman Friedman PA.
The case is K.T. v. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., case number 17-14237, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.