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  • Writer's picturePhil Griffis

Cruise Ships and the Courthouse

By far the most publicized recent suit against a major cruise line is brought by the surviving parents of tragically killed 18-month old Chloe Wiegand.  In their suit against Royal Caribbean the parents claim that a dangerous configuration of windows on the Freedom of the Seas led to Chloe’s fall from the vessel while in port in Puerto Rico. The family describes the panels as a “wall of glass”, with the problem being that some of the individual window glass panes could be slid open by anyone, including passengers. They suggest there was no indication or way for a toddler to know that a pane had been opened.  They allege that Chloe asked her step grandfather to lift her up so she could “bang on” the glass of the window pane that she believed was in front of her.  He did so and, according to the parents, the child slipped from her step grandfather’s arms and fell through the open pane.  Allegedly this was the only open pane on the panel. The family claims this configuration violated multiple codes, standards and guidelines designed to, among other things, prevent children from falling (e.g. prevention guards, screens, warnings).  They point out other cruise lines and more modern ships do not utilize window banks with individual panes that can open.In its just-filed Motion to Dismiss Royal Caribbean, citing surveillance video, claims the case is about an adult man (the step grandfather) who (1) “walked up to a window he was aware was open; (2) leaned his upper body out the window for several seconds (3) reached down and picked up Chloe; and (4) then held her by and out of the open window for thirty four seconds before he lost his grip and dropped Chloe out the window”.  They correctly point out that charges of negligent homicide have been filed against the step grandfather.  In response the family claims Royal Caribbean misrepresented what the video showed and possibly manipulated it by enhancement.  The law says a child of Chloe’s age is incapable of negligence, so the fight will be whether Royal Caribbean or the step grandfather was at fault for the tragedy.

Norwegian Cruise Line was ordered to pay a $2.084 million judgment to Trinidad and Tobago resident Andrew Ow Buland, who suffered a heart attack aboard the Norwegian Pearl back in 2016. Andrew thankfully survived but was allegedly kept on the ship instead of being sent to a hospital. He successfully argued that the actions of the Norwegian Pearl’s infirmary aggravated the damage done to his heart. In his complaint, Andrew stated he “was assured by [the] ship’s medical personnel that the heart attack was very minor and that he would be okay to remain on the vessel until it docked in Miami.” When Norwegian Pearl docked, Andrew was taken to the hospital in cardiogenic shock. He required four stents, five days on a balloon pump and life support, and the installation of a defibrillator in his chest. The jury found Norwegian Cruise Line negligent and awarded $2.084 million to him, including $1.2 million for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life.

Royal Caribbean was ordered to pay $3.38 million for the allegedly negligent actions of its doctor which led to the death of passenger Richard Puchalski. Richard was on an Alaskan cruise with his family to celebrate his 70th birthday. He went to the ship’s infirmary with shortness of breath. The ship’s doctor diagnosed his condition as “a septal infarction,” a serious cardiac incident. The doctor gave him medication and sent him back to his cabin. She did not call his family, keep him for observation or additional testing, or transfer him to a hospital on shore. Approximately 30 minutes later, Puchalski collapsed in his cabin. Two nurses attempted unsuccessfully to lift him but allegedly did not attempt to provide any care. He was eventually transported to the ship’s infirmary but there was “an additional significant delay” before he was transferred to a hospital on shore. Richard’s family’s attorney stated “[U]ntil the cruise line industry makes the long-overdue, necessary changes to the standard of care, more families will suffer these life changing tragedies…” Interestingly, the jury found that Puchalski was 30% at fault. The jury awarded over $4.8 million, which was reduced by 30% to account for Puchalski’s own negligence. However, the jury found that Dr. Saunders gave Puchalski medication inappropriate for his condition which turned his treatable cardiac incident into a fatal heart attack.

Royal Caribbean is being sued over a bungee jumping accident on board the Mariner of the Seas. Casey Holladay was taking his turn on the SkyPad, a trampoline/bungee/VR experience billed as “gravity-defying fun”. The bungee cords attached to his harness snapped, causing him to plummet twenty feet to the ship’s deck. Holladay suffered a broken pelvis and a dislocated shoulder and spent nine days in the hospital undergoing multiple surgeries. He sued Royal Caribbean for $10 million, alleging it failed to properly inspect and maintain the equipment, as similar onshore operations are required to do. Holladay’s attorney noted that some of the newer “extreme” attractions on cruise ships were not necessarily engineered to be operated on a moving ship. Just a few months prior to Holladay’s accident, another passenger allegedly suffered broken ribs from an ill-fitting harness on the same SkyPad attraction. After temporarily closing the attraction, it has been reopened featuring an “updated design.”

American Cruise Lines was sued in Louisiana by Victor Buchholz over injuries he sustained while a passenger on the Queen of the West. As the ship was docking, Buchholz was exiting his cabin when the metal door slammed shut allegedly because the ship collided with the dock. The door slammed shut on his thumb, causing partial amputation. Buchholz alleged that the cabin door was defective due to its “insufficient resistance to uncontrolled and unexpected violent swinging” which is typical for a vessel. Buchholz claims the cruise line was negligent in failing to repair or replace the door.

Galveston based Carnival Cruise Line, through its subsidiary Princess Cruise Lines, was convicted of criminal charges for illegally dumping oil-contaminated waste and “gray water” – the waste water from baths, showers, sinks, and washing machines – into the ocean and trying to cover it up. Carnival was sentenced to five years of probation and ordered to pay a $40 million penalty. In June 2019, Carnival and Princess admitted they violated terms of their probation and were ordered to pay an additional $20 million. The violations included dumping plastic into the ocean, falsifying records, and interfering with court supervision by sending in teams prior to court-ordered inspections in an attempt to avoid any environmental violations. The U.S. District judge presiding over the case was frustrated with the lack of progress made and said she expected more concrete action from Carnival. The judge had previously threatened to block Carnival from docking at U.S. ports if their violations continued. Carnival also agreed to pay for 15 annual audits (in addition to other audits it is already paying for) and committed to restructure its compliance efforts. The judge ordered that if Carnival does not meet the deadlines for the compliance restructuring, it could be fined up to $10 million per day. Part of that restructuring included the creation of an executive compliance committee, appointing a chief compliance officer, and the development of methods to reduce plastic and food waste. To comply with these requirements, Carnival appointed a new Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer and promoted another executive to Vice President of Corporate Environmental Compliance. But, at a recent hearing, the presiding judge was still frustrated with Carnival’s lack of goals and stated that each of the violations could be grounds for her to revoke probation and resentence the cruise line. She blamed Carnival’s corporate culture which was found to include a pervasive lack of trust between workers and their supervisors. A report found that workers felt Carnival blames employees who make mistakes instead of working to figure out the cause of a problem and learn from it. This comes on the heels of an inadvertent gray water spill at Port Canaveral. Carnival blamed the accidental spillage on a valve failure and stated no cleanup would be necessary.Get it together Carnival!  Significant environmental violations, I believe, should be cause to completely revoke a cruise line's right to operate.


Phil Griffis obtained his first jury verdict in 1990, when he convinced a jury that a customer’s fall at his client’s store did not cause the customer’s aspiration pneumonia and stroke. In the years since he has continued to win in courtrooms across the State of Texas.

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