Cruise Ship Illness: Can You Sue the Cruise Line?

If you get sick on a cruise, understand your legal rights and what you'll need to prove in a lawsuit.

If you get sick while on a cruise, you might wonder if you are legally entitled to sue the cruise line for your medical expenses and other losses related to the illness. Like in almost any personal injury case, a cruise line's liability for a passenger's illness will come down to the legal questions of 1) whether the cruise line (or one of its employees) was somehow negligent, and 2) whether that negligence was a cause of your illness. Read on to learn more.

What is Negligence?

In general, negligence means not exercising reasonable care. The fact that you got sick on a cruise ship does not automatically mean that the cruise line was negligent. In order to recover damages against the cruise line, you and/or your lawyer must be able to prove that the cruise line did not exercise reasonable care, and that, as a result of the cruise line's failure to exercise reasonable care, you got sick. Learn more about Negligence and the Duty of Care.

Types of Illness Often Caused by a Cruise Line's Negligence

There are three main diseases that can occur on cruises that often can be the result of the negligence of a cruise line or one of its employees:

  • norovirus
  • food poisoning, and
  • Legionnaire's Disease.

These diseases range from mildly serious (norovirus and food poisoning) to extremely serious and life-threatening (Legionnaire's Disease). Depending on the circumstances, you may be able to sue the cruise line if you come down with one of these conditions.

What about a much more common health problem like the common cold and even the flu? Cruise ship passengers are not customarily able to sue the cruise line for these types of minor diseases because colds and the flu can occur almost anytime and anywhere, and it is almost impossible for a passenger to prove that he/she caught a cold or the flu because of cruise line negligence.

Let's take a brief look at the three more serious illnesses.

Norovirus is sometimes called the stomach flu, although it is not related to influenza. Norovirus causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and sometimes headache and fever. Norovirus is very contagious. It spreads just like the common cold virus, through physical contact with a sick person or with something that the person touched. A norovirus can also be spread by contaminated food and water.

Norovirus is very common in general and also on cruise ships. You have probably read in the newspapers or on the internet about norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships. But because it is so common, a person who gets a norovirus on a cruise ship cannot automatically assume that the cruise ship was negligent. You have to prove that the cruise ship acted unreasonably in some way.

Food Poisoning is unfortunately not uncommon on cruise ships and is also often the result of negligence. For example, an ill food preparer on a cruise ship might have negligently failed to wash his/her hands properly. Learn more about Food Poisoning and Foodborne Illness.

Legionnaires' Disease is a serious condition. It has a fatality rate of approximately 15%, and some of those who do survive feel its effects for years. The disease comes from the Legionella bacterium, which is not an uncommon bacterium. It grows best in warm water, like in hot tubs, and thrives in large, complex heating and plumbing systems like in hotels, office buildings, and cruise ships. It is killed by hot water.

Because the bacterium grows in such specific ways, a Legionnaires' disease outbreak on a cruise ship can often be the result of cruise ship negligence, like, for example, not sufficiently heating pools and hot tubs.

Proving Negligence If You Got Sick on a Cruise

If you were the only person that got sick on your cruise, it is going to be next to impossible to prove that the cruise ship was negligent, except possibly if you got Legionnaire's Disease. This is because people can get sick anywhere, and, when there isn't a mass outbreak of illness, it is very hard to prove where, how, and why you got sick. Remember that in any type of personal injury case, including a cruise ship illness case, you have the burden of proving not only that the cruise line was negligent, but also that its negligence was a factor in causing your illness.

Gathering Evidence

If you get sick on a cruise ship, you should pay close attention to things like:

  • how many other people on board got sick and what their symptoms seem to be
  • whether the crew seems to be taking additional precautions against illness (like cleaning the bathrooms more often or not letting the passengers serve themselves at a buffet)
  • whether there seem to be a lot of people in the ship's hospital
  • whether the crew makes any health announcements or warnings
  • whether any passengers seem to be quarantined
  • whether the cruise ship deviates from its original itinerary

If you end up going to the ship's hospital, you should also ask the doctors and nurses if other people have gotten sick on the cruise. They may not tell you, but it doesn't hurt to ask.

Watch the Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations is the deadline for filing a lawsuit against the defendant. It is often anywhere from two to six years, depending on where the accident or injury happened.

However, the statute of limitations is often much more strict in cruise ship cases. It is usually no more than one year, and may even be shorter, depending on your cruise line. Further, most cruise lines also have a notice requirement. That means, if you want to sue them, you have to give them formal written notice of your claim within a specific period of time, usually just a couple of months after your injury or illness.

If you got sick on a cruise, it is critical that you not miss the notice requirement and the statute of limitations window, so it is a good idea to contact a qualified maritime personal injury lawyer as soon as possible, to make sure that your rights are protected and all of your legal options are preserved.

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