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Cruise Ship Owner Not Liable for Drunk Passenger Falling Down Escape Hatch

Are you thinking about taking a cruise? Before you buy your tickets, you need to think about the potential legal implications if you are injured while onboard a ship. Do not assume that the normal personal injury laws applicable to businesses and individuals in Georgia are in effect on the “high seas.” Indeed, much of what happens on a cruise ship is governed by maritime law, which is often not as friendly toward injured passengers as you might think.

Caron v. NCL (BAHAMAS), LTD.

A recent decision by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta offers a helpful illustration. Keep in mind, while this case was originally filed in a Florida court, it applies federal law, and the 11th Circuit’s rulings are also considered binding on federal courts here in Georgia.

The plaintiff in this case was a passenger on the defendant’s cruise ship. One evening, the plaintiff was drinking heavily and “became intoxicated to the point that he felt completely disoriented,” according to court records. At around 3:30 a.m., the intoxicated-disoriented plaintiff wandered into a restricted area of the ship. When crew members called security, the plaintiff quickly tried to leave the area, only to fall down an escape hatch into a propeller room. The plaintiff broke his foot as a result of the fall.

A year later, the plaintiff sued the defendants in a Florida federal court, alleging they were negligent in failing “to maintain its walkways and manholes in a safe condition” and failing to warn him about the hazard posed by the escape hatch. Later, the plaintiff amended his lawsuit to allege that the defendants were also negligent in “over-serving” him alcohol.

The federal judge presiding over the case rejected all of the plaintiff’s claims. The judge dismissed the over-service claim and granted summary judgment on the remaining negligence theories. On appeal, the 11th Circuit affirmed the trial court.

The first problem, according to the 11th Circuit, was that the federal courts actually lacked jurisdiction over the negligence claims. The plaintiff is a Canadian citizen. The defendant is a Bermuda corporation. Under U.S. law, federal courts can not hear controversies between two “foreign” citizens. That said, the trial court was authorized to hear this case under “admiralty” jurisdiction, which applies to any incident “connected with maritime activity.”

Next, the 11th Circuit said the plaintiff waited too long to add his over-service allegation to his complaint. Under the terms of the plaintiff’s cruise ticket–which created a legally binding contract under maritime law–he agreed to bring any personal injury claim against the defendant within one year of the incident. (For comparison’s sake, Georgia normally imposes a two-year statute of limitations on personal injury claims.) Since the plaintiff’s amendment came after the one-year deadline, it was barred as a matter of law.

As for the plaintiff’s remaining negligence arguments, the 11th Circuit said the plaintiff failed “to produce sufficient evidence that the hatch was unreasonably dangerous” and thus created a safety hazard for passengers. Nor was their evidence of any negligence on the part of the ship’s crew. To the contrary, they followed company policy and called security when they saw the plaintiff in an unauthorized area.