A mismanaged COVID-19 outbreak on board led to the death of several passengers in March 2020. 

On 25 October 2023, the Federal Court of Australia delivered a judgment against Carnival Australia – the Australian branch of an International Cruise Line – holding that the company was negligent and engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct in relation to the cruise undertaken by the passenger liner “Ruby Princess” in March 2020.

Indeed, on 8 March 2020 Ruby Princess – which had on board about 2,671 passengers and 1,146 crew members – departed for a 13-day cruise to a number of ports in New Zealand and back to Sydney. However, by 15 March 2020, there was an outbreak of COVID-19 and the vessel was forced to interrupt the cruise. During the outbreak, many hundreds of passengers and crew contracted COVID-19 and a significant number of passengers died.

Two passengers filed a class action against the owner and operators of the vessel claiming inter alia that Carnival Australia (i) had made misleading representations in pre-holiday communications with passengers, which included statements implying that it was "reasonably safe" to embark on the cruise; (ii) was negligent insofar as it decided not to cancel the cruise despite it was already well known that there was an increased risk of an outbreak of a respiratory virus like COVID-19 on board of cruise ships (in addition, there had been several deficiencies in pre-embarkation screening of passengers and in cleaning procedures on board); and (iii) this had resulted in the frustration of the contract’s purpose.

In its judgment, the Federal Court held that “In light of what was known about the virus at the time, including the experience gained from the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess [i.e. two vessels that had experienced a similar situation short before], it is doubtful that it was possible to provide cruising services that were reasonably fit for the purpose of providing a safe cruise that was also relaxing and pleasurable – quarantining everyone in their cabins might have provided safety but would otherwise have ruined the cruise”. In the Court’s view, it was thus established that the respondents failed to comply with the purpose and result guarantees provided for by the cruise contract.

Furthermore, the Court found that the respondents failed in their duty of care by neglecting to cancel the cruise, warn passengers of COVID-19 risks, implement temperature screening, inquire about symptoms, encourage physical distancing, limit occupancy, establish effective isolation measures, and provide necessary provisions for isolated passengers. The Court highlighted that Carnival should have been aware that their screening procedures were unlikely to detect all infectious passengers, based on experiences the prior month with outbreaks on two other ships operated by the company, the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess.

Finally, the Court held that the company’s failure to warn the passengers that it was no longer able to provide the services or protect the safety of the passengers as originally promised amounted to misleading or deceptive conduction breach of the Consumer Law.

Reference: Federal Court of Australia, Karpik v. Carnival plc, 25 October 23.

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