In a historic and tragic case, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals today acknowledged for the first time that cruise lines have a duty to warn their passengers of dangers ashore in places where their passengers are known or expected to visit during ports-of-call. You can read the opinion here. The case involves the shooting death of 15-year-old Liz Marie Perez Chaparro who was celebrating her quinceanera with her parents and brother on a cruise aboard the M/V Victory. One of the ports-of-call was St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Unbeknownst to the Chaparros, but well known to Carnival, was the fact that the capital city of St. Thomas, and particularly an area known as Coki Beach, at Coki Point, had become the scene of rampant gang related violence and numerous shootings. In fact, just a few months before the incident in which Liz Marie was shot and killed, no less an authority than the Attorney General of the Virgin Islands had predicted that innocent bystanders would be caught up in these shootings. His predictions were quoted in U.S. Virgin Islands newspapers.
Nevertheless, cruise lines, including Carnival, continued to promote and sell excursions to Coki Beach/Coki Point. In fact, one of Carnival’s crew members recommended Coki Beach to the Chaparro family. The Chaparro family visited Coki Beach, although not on the Carnival-promoted and sold excursion, opting instead for a less expensive excursion to the area. When the excursion bus was leaving the area, Liz Marie was shot and killed, and died in her father’s arms, when gunfire broke out at the funeral of a gang member who had been killed only days before in a shoot-out.
Although the duty to warn is well established in state court, and has been accepted by most of the District Court Judges in the Southern District of Florida where the vast majority of cruise line cases are filed, the duty to warn passengers of dangers ashore had never previously been squarely addressed by the Eleventh Circuit. The duty emanates from a state intermediate appellate court decision issued over 25 years ago, Carlisle v. Ulysses Line Ltd., S.A., 475 So.2d 248 (Fla. 3DCA 1985).
When the Chaparros filed their lawsuit against Carnival arising out of their daughter’s death, and also brought a claim on behalf of her brother for the intentional infliction of emotional distress, the United States District Court Judge dismissed the claim, ruling that under the federal pleading standards, the Plaintiffs had failed to properly state a claim for relief. On appeal, in addition to defending that position, Carnival argued that the Third District Court of Appeal’s Carlisle decision represented an unwarranted expansion of maritime law beyond the boundaries of the cruise vessel itself. The Eleventh Circuit specifically rejected that argument, finding “the rule in Carlisle consonant with the federal maritime standard of ordinary reasonable care under the circumstances.”
The Chaparro family is represented by trial lawyers Jim Walker and Lisa O’Neill of Walker & O’Neill, in South Miami, and were represented on appeal by this office.