Cruise Company Has Duty to Warn of Danger at Port of Call

By Robyn Hagan Cain on September 06, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Cruises look lovely on TV commercials, but news stories about cruises are downright scary. Apparently, there are rapes, outbreaks, and shipwrecks to worry about. (No, thanks. When we take time off, we want to relax, not survive.)

On the other hand, many people enjoy cruises. So if wariness of a cruise line's duty to warn is the only thing keeping you from the high seas, it might be time to book your stateroom and pack your suitcase: The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that a cruise line owes its passengers a duty to warn of known dangers beyond the point of debarkation in places where passengers are invited or reasonably expected to visit.

As with most appellate cases, there are situational caveats, so let's jump in to the facts.

Liz Marie Perez Chaparro and her family took a vacation aboard a Carnival cruise ship, the M/V VICTORY. The family alleges that an unidentified Carnival employee encouraged Liz Marie's father and brother to visit Coki Beach and Coral World upon disembarking the ship in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.

On July 12, 2010, the family left the ship and traveled to Coki Beach independently of the ship's sponsored excursions in St. Thomas. On their way back to the ship from Coki Beach, the family rode an open-air bus past a funeral service of a gang member who recently died in a gang-related shooting near Coki Beach. While stuck in traffic, gang-related, retaliatory violence erupted at the funeral, shots were fired, and Liz Marie was killed on the bus as an innocent bystander.

The family sued Carnival in a Florida federal court, claiming that Carnival negligently failed to warn them about the crime problem, reported gang-related violence, and potential for public shootings in St. Thomas generally, and Coki Beach specifically. They further alleged that Carnival's negligent failure to warn resulted in Carnival's negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The district court granted Carnival's motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), finding that the complaint's allegations were conclusory and insufficiently factual.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court and reinstated the case.

The interesting part of this appeal, however, was the duty to warn analysis.

To plead negligence, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant had a duty to protect the plaintiff from a particular injury, the defendant breached that duty, the breach actually and proximately caused the plaintiff's injury, and the plaintiff suffered actual harm. In a maritime context, "a shipowner owes the duty of exercising reasonable care towards those lawfully aboard the vessel who are not members of the crew."

The Florida federal court that heard this case has consistently applied a Florida state standard, which recognizes a duty to warn of dangers at a port of call. The Eleventh Circuit noted that the Florida rule "is consonant with the federal maritime standard of 'ordinary reasonable care under the circumstances.'"

So if you decide to take that cruise you've been dreaming of, you can expect port of call warnings.

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