Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Reverses District Court Decision Dismissing Negligence Claims against Carnival Cruise Lines

In Chaparro v. Carnival Corporation, No. 11-14047, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided yesterday that the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida erred in dismissing the complaint of the family and personal representatives of the estate of a young girl shot and killed while on vacation in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.

In July 2010, the decedent, fourteen-year-old Liz Marie Chaparro, her parents, and her brother took a vacation aboard a Carnival cruise ship.  News reports indicate that the family was celebrating Liz Marie's quinceañera.  See Cruise Law News.  The complaint alleged that an unidentified Carnival employee encouraged Liz Marie's family to visit Coki Beach upon disembarking the ship in St. Thomas.  While on an open-air bus back to the ship from Coki Beach, the bus passed a funeral service for a gang member who had recently been killed near Coki Beach.  While stuck in traffic, gang-related violence erupted at the funeral and Liz Marie was shot and killed in the crossfire.  Liz Marie's family sued Carnival, claiming that Carnival was negligent in failing to warn them about the crime problem and gang-related violence in St. Thomas and Coki Beach.  The complaint also alleged that this failure to warn resulted in Carnival's negligent infliction of emotion distress.  The District Court dismissed the complaint on the basis that the allegations contained therein were conclusory, rather than factual.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit first considered whether Carnival had a duty to warn Liz Marie and her family of the general and specific dangers of crime in St. Thomas and Coki Beach.  The Court first noted its own prior rulings that a shipowner owes a duty of "ordinary reasonable care under the circumstances" towards non-crewmembers who are lawfully onboard their vessels. Keefe v. Bahama Cruise Line, Inc., 867 F.2d 1318, 1322 (11th Cir. 1989). The court also looked to the decision of a Florida Stateappellate court, which held that a cruise line owes its passengers a duty to warn of known dangers beyond the point of debarkation in places where passengers are invited or reasonably expected to visit. Carlisle v. Ulysses Line Ltd., S.A., 475 So. 2d 248, 251 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1985). The Court rejected Carnival's arguments that Carlisle improperly expanded a shipowner's liability to passengers, finding that the rule set forth in Carlisle is in accord with the federal maritime standard of "ordinary reasonable care under the circumstances." The Court further rejected Carnival's arguments that Liz Marie's death was unforeseeable, finding that such an argument was inappropriate at the pleadings stage of the proceedings.  Having found that Carnival owed a duty to warn Liz Marie's family of the dangers, the Court then considered the sufficiency of the pleading and concluded that the facts alleged in the complaint were plausible and raised a reasonable expectation that discovery could supply additional proof of Carnival's liability, as required under the pleadings standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Court similarly found that because Appellants pled negligence sufficiently, they also stated a valid claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, as they properly alleged that they were placed in immediate risk of physical harm by Carnival's conduct.  The Eleventh Circuit remanded the case to the District Court for further proceedings.

Read a copy of the Eleventh Circuit's decision

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