California Court Issues Bellwether Ruling on COVID-19 and DOHSA

Maa v. Carnival Corp. & PLC, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 172621

Factual Background

In Maa v. Carnival Corp. & PLC, the United States District Court for the Central District of California held that personal injury claims arising from deaths caused by COVID-19 acquired onboard cruise vessels are limited by the Death on the High Seas Act.

Plaintiffs Toyling and Wilson Maa set sail from San Antonio, Chile on the CARNIVAL PRINCESS on March 5, 2020. Nine days later, passengers were notified “they were no longer permitted to go ashore at their scheduled ports of call.” Three days later, all passengers were ordered to have their temperatures taken.  On March 30, the first passengers began feeling ill, including Mr. Maa who had developed a fever. The next day, the medical center on the ship reported a “higher-than-normal number of people presenting influenza-like symptoms.” By April 3, two passengers onboard had died from COVID-19.

Mr. Maa was placed on oxygen that same day and died in a hospital that evening. Mrs. Maa was admitted into the hospital the following day and was not released until April 22.

COVID-19 and DOHSA

Mrs. Maa filed suit against Princess Cruise Lines and Carnival Corporation, alleging that the Defendants negligently continued operations without taking necessary precautions to protect passengers from contracting COVID-19.

In addressing this suit, the Court correctly held that negligence claims based on personal injury fall within admiralty jurisdiction because 1) the incident occurred at sea; 2) “unchecked personal injuries” resulting from a cruise-ship operator have the “potential to disrupt maritime commerce; and, 3) the plaintiffs suffered their injury “while participating as a passenger on a cruise-ship, which is a traditional maritime activity.”

The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) applies where “the site of an accident [is] on the high seas” regardless of where “death actually occurs or where the wrongful act causing the accident may have originated.” Bergen v. F/V ST. PATRICK, 816 F.2d 1345, 1348 (9th Cir. 1987).

The Supreme Court of the United States has held that DOHSA “preempts state wrongful death law.” Dooley v. Korean Air Lines Co., 524 U.S. 116, 118. As such, recovery under the Act is limited to pecuniary damages, such as the monetary value of lost income from the deceased, or the value attributed to housework and other services provided by the deceased.

Mrs. Maa failed to address the relevant precedent on the Death on the High Seas Act in her Complaint. In response, Defendants argued that because Plaintiffs admitted they “both got COVID-19 on the CORAL PRINCESS,” and because the CORAL PRINCESS was on the high seas when Mr. Maa first began to exhibit symptoms, that DOHSA clearly applied. The Court agreed and found that DOHSA preempted the survival claims brought on “behalf of the Estate of Wilson Maa.”

Practical Significance of this Ruling

Currently, this ruling is only binding in the Ninth Circuit. However, should other courts decide to follow the precedent established in this case, recovery for the estates of cruise passengers who are killed by COVID-19 will be severely limited. Considering the fact that many cruise passengers are retirees, financial recovery may be limited to little more than funeral expenses.

If you or someone you know contracted COVID-19 while a passenger on a cruise-ship, you may be entitled to financial compensation. Contact an attorney at Koch & Schmidt, LLC today for a free consultation and case evaluation.