Lawfuel.com – Can the victims of the Italian cruise ship disaster sue in US courts? That is a question being asked amid legal circles, but the answer is possibly ‘No’.
The ship, which has claimed at least six lives so far with 16 still missing among the over 4000 passengers and crew, is one of the worst passenger ship disasters to have occurred.
For those potential claimants seeking relief from the ship owners, the issue is that most of the tickets bought for the ill-fated cruise were purchased with a clause requiring claims to be heard in the port city of Genoa.
The cruise that ended in tragedy on Friday had just left the port of Civitavecchia near Rome headed for Barcelona and Majorca and had not touched any US port, thereby excluding claims in the US.
Claims by US citizens have been sought before, but the actual court jurisdiction as prescribed by the ticketing has generally been upheld by those courts who have heard the claims, according to legal experts.
Reuters report, for instance, that in August 2010 a federal appeals court affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit against Regent Seven Seas Cruises, whose contract required claims over voyages not involving a U.S. port to be brought in Paris. Nina Janet Seung, who suffered injuries while on board a Regent cruise within French Polynesia, claimed she was financially unable to bring a lawsuit in Paris and that her medical condition prevented her from traveling there.
But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that her arguments were insufficient to override that part of the contract. The 11th Circuit has appellate jurisdiction over federal courts in Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
Carnival Corp, the Miami-based parent of operator Costa Crociere, is also unlikely to face criminal liability in the United States, since the incident happened in Italian territorial waters, legal experts said. Most U.S. criminal laws are not applied outside the United States.
“In the case of Costa, the litigation in the United States is going to be severely limited,” said Jason Margulies of the law firm Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkelman, which specializes in maritime law.
Nevertheless, some U.S. lawyers said the unique circumstances of this case may merit a challenge, even though past case law is not on their side.
Reuters say that even if U.S. citizens who suffered injuries aboard the ship were able to bring a lawsuit in U.S. courts, their damages may be limited. Under the Athens Convention, which limits the liability of cruise operators, the cap currently stands about $80,000 per person, according to legal experts.
One way plaintiffs may be able to overcome this cap would be to prove willfulness or recklessness, which may be possible in this case, said attorney Tonya Meister-Griffith of Meister Law. For example, she said the passengers may be able to show that the captain was reckless in navigating the ship.
The captain, Francesco Schettino, was arrested on Saturday and accused of manslaughter and abandoning the ship before all of the people were evacuated.
“I think there are some good facts in this case to argue that it doesn’t apply,” said Meister-Griffith.
Crew members who suffered injuries aboard the Costa will not have any easier time getting their cases heard in U.S. courts. Most cruise operators have contracts with their crews that require them to arbitrate any disputes. U.S. courts have routinely upheld those provisions, according to maritime law experts.