Can You File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit If a Family Member Dies on a Cruise?

Cruises are big business in South Florida. According to the American Association of Port Authorities, the cruise industry is responsible for “more than 140,000 jobs and more than $7.3 billion in direct purchases in Florida” alone. But if you are one of the thousands of Floridians who are considering taking a cruise this year, you might wonder how the law works when you are on a ship. For example, if you are the victim of medical malpractice or suffer the wrongful death of a family member due to the negligence of the ship’s crew, can you seek justice under U.S. and Florida law?

Judge Holds Federal Law Does Not Preempt Parents’ Emotional Distress Claim

While most personal injury case are governed by Florida law, injuries that occur outside the navigable waters of the United States fall under admiralty law, which is entirely within the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Specifically, the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) authorizes the personal representative of a person who dies due to a “wrongful act” that occurs “on the high seas beyond three nautical miles from the shore of the United States” to bring a lawsuit on behalf of the spouse or dependents of the deceased. In this context, DOHSA supersedes Florida’s own wrongful death law.

But DOHSA does not necessarily preempt all other personal injury claims. A pending DOHSA case before a judge in Miami illustrates this point. This case involves the tragic death of a 17-year-old woman from New Jersey who took a cruise out of Miami with her parents. According to the parents’ lawsuit, during the cruise they “consumed only food prepared and provided” by the ship’s crew.

Five days into the cruise, the daughter “reported to the shipboard medical facility” on the fifth day, presenting with symptoms of “vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea.” The daughter’s condition continued to worsen, and the next morning she collapsed in front of her mother and died on the floor of her cabin. According to the parents’ subsequent lawsuit, the cause of death was eating “bacteria-ridden food prepared” by the cruise line’s employees.

The case remains pending. On March 29 a Miami judge largely denied the cruise line’s motion to dismiss the case. In addition to a wrongful death claim under DOHSA, the parents also seek damages for “negligent infliction of emotional distress.” The cruise line argued such a claim was also preempted by DOHSA. The judge disagreed. Although other federal courts have reached different conclusions on this subject, the judge in this case held the parents could pursue a separate emotional distress claim based on their witnessing of the events leading up their daughter’s death. The judge noted that under admiralty law, an injured party can pursue a separate claim if they “sustain a physical impact as a result of a defendant’s negligent conduct, or who are placed in immediate risk of physical harm by that conduct.” This is separate from DOHSA,which only applies to cases of wrongful death.

Get Help from a Florida Wrongful Death Attorney

If you have lost a loved one due to someone else’s negligence, regardless of where that death occurs, it is important you consult with an experienced Clearwater personal injury lawyer who can advise you of your legal options. Contact the Law Office of Paul B. Genet, P.A., at (727) 538-8865 today if you need to speak with an attorney.

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