Can Cruise Ship Employees Sue for Exposure to COVID-19?

Unlike most land-based workers, crewmembers and other employees on oceangoing cruise ships can sue their employer if they get COVID-19 because the cruise line didn’t take proper safety precautions.

If you contracted COVID-19 while working on a cruise ship, you might be facing medical bills, income lost while you recovered, and even a reduced ability to earn in the future. Naturally, you’d like to be compensated for your losses. But your legal options are different than most employees who are injured or get sick because of their jobs.

While you won’t be covered by regular workers’ compensation, you likely won’t be subject to the rule that usually prohibits suing your employer for getting COVID-19 on the job. Under U.S. maritime law, you have the right to sue for personal injury damages if you’re a qualifying crewmember. Read on to learn about the requirements for these lawsuits and the kind of compensation you might receive.

Are You Eligible to Sue the Cruise Line Under the Jones Act?

Under a federal law known as the Jones Act, “seamen” who are injured or become ill during their employment may sue their employers for personal injury. If they die as a result of their injuries, their survivors may sue for wrongful death. (46 U.S.C. § 30104 (2020).)

How do you know whether you would be considered a seaman under the law (regardless of your gender)? If you’ve worked on a cruise ship, you know that the industry employs a wide range of people, from cooks, waiters, and bartenders to entertainers, casino dealers, and hairdressers. While their work doesn’t involve the traditional tasks of a ship’s crew (like deck hands and engineers), courts have found that these workers may qualify as seamen under the Jones Act if their duties contribute to the ship’s mission and they have a substantial employment connection to the ship or fleet of ships.

However, you still could face obstacles to a Jones Act lawsuit if you aren’t a full-time employee of the cruise line. For instance:

  • If you work on cruise ships part time or work for a number of different cruise lines—and spent less than 30% of the time working onboard for the owner of the ship where you contracted COVID-19—you might have trouble meeting the substantial-connection requirement under the U.S. Supreme Court’s “rule of thumb” for seaman status (Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347 (1995)).
  • If your actual employer was a concessionaire or vendor (like an independent retail store with a contract to operate on the ship), you may or may not be able to sue the ship’s owner under the Jones Act, depending on the circumstances—including who directly controlled your work.

You don’t need to be a citizen or resident of the United States in order to file a Jones Act lawsuit, but the cruise line you’re suing must generally have its base of operations in the U.S. (regardless of where the ships are registered).

What Does It Take to Win a Jones Act Suit Against a Cruise Line?

To succeed with a lawsuit for getting COVID-19 while working on a cruise ship, you will need to prove that your employer was negligent by failing to provide a reasonably safe place to work, and that the negligence played some role in causing you to become sick. In order to be found negligent, your employer must have had notice of the unsafe condition and a chance to correct it.

For example, in one of the coronavirus-related class-action lawsuits filed against major cruise lines, crewmembers claimed that Celebrity Cruises failed to take basic safety precautions to protect its employees, like requiring social distancing or providing facemasks, even after the company knew that COVID-19 was probably spreading on board its ships (Nedeltcheva v. Celebrity Cruises, Inc., Case # 1:20-cv-21569, U.S.D.C. S.D. Fla.).

What Kinds of Damages Can You Receive in a Jones Act Lawsuit?

When you sue your employer under the Jones Act for getting COVID-19 on a cruise ship, you should be entitled to compensation for the losses you’ve suffered as a result of contracting the disease, including:

Suing a Cruise Line for “Unseaworthiness”

If you qualify as a seaman, you can also sue a ship owner for failing its duty, under general maritime law, to provide the crew with a seaworthy vessel—meaning one that’s reasonably fit for the voyage. A ship might be considered unseaworthy if crewmembers are sick and thus not able to perform their duties in operating the vessel.

You may combine a negligence lawsuit under the Jones Act with a claim for unseaworthiness, but you won’t be able to receive duplicate damages.

“Maintenance and Cure” Compensation for COVID-19

There’s another option for receiving limited compensation for getting COVID-19 while working on a cruise ship, even if you can’t prove that your employer was negligent or failed to provide a seaworthy vessel. Ship owners are responsible (under general maritime law) for providing “maintenance and cure” (M&C) benefits to seamen who get sick while working for the ship. M&C benefits are similar to workers’ compensation in that you don’t have to prove that the ship owner was negligent—but they’re much more limited. M&C payments cover only your medical treatment and actual, out-of-pocket expenses for food and lodging—and they continue only until you’ve reached “maximum medical improvement” (which means your condition isn’t likely to improve any more, even with further treatment).

Legal Help If You Contracted COVID-19 While Working on a Cruise Ship

In order to sue your employer under the Jones Act or general maritime law, you need to file the lawsuit within three years after you first learned that you got sick with COVID-19 because of your work on a cruise ship. The law covering these cases is complicated and specialized, so if you believe you might have a case against the cruise line, you should speak to an attorney with experience in the Jones Act and maritime law as soon as possible.

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