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Fisherman sues cruise line after 28 days stranded at sea

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue May 15, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Princess Cruises denies a lawyer's claim its crew didn't stop for financial reasons
  • A man who watched two of his companions die at sea sues Princess Cruise Lines
  • The survivor says the behavior of the cruise's crew was "outrageous"
  • The cruise company says it's investigating, adding it suspects "unfortunate miscommunication"

(CNN) -- An 18-year-old Panamanian fisherman who survived 28 days adrift at sea is suing Princess Cruise Lines, arguing that one of its cruise ships should have stopped and saved him.

A negligence lawsuit filed in Florida last week says the behavior of officers or crew members of the Star Princess was "outrageous and, under the circumstances, so beyond all bounds of decency as to be regarded as shocking, atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community."

Three passengers who were birdwatching on the ship alerted a crew member when they spotted Adrian Vasquez and his companions signaling for help from their fishing boat, the suit says.

Even though crew members "had clear knowledge that people were stranded in an open boat hundreds of miles from shore in the Pacific Ocean and desperately calling for their help," the suit says, "they consciously ignored the emergency situation and did not deviate from their cruise."

Adrian Vasquez gets treatment after being rescued by the Ecuadorian navy on March 21.
Adrian Vasquez gets treatment after being rescued by the Ecuadorian navy on March 21.

The fishing boat, Fifty Cents, had been adrift for 15 days when it crossed paths with the Star Princess on March 10, according to the lawsuit. At the time, all three fishermen aboard were alive.

Later that day, according to the lawsuit, 16-year-old Fernando Osorio died, "having lost all hope as the Star Princess steamed away." Five days later, another fisherman on the broken-down boat, Oropeces Betancourt, 24, died at sea.

Two days after spotting the struggling fishermen, the three cruise ship passengers followed up with a ship officer, asking him what happened to the fishing boat after their report, according to the lawsuit.

"This officer did not have an answer for them and walked away without explanation," the lawsuit says.

Princess Cruises spokeswoman Karen Candy did not comment on this specific allegation Monday, adding that the company was still investigating the incident.

Robert Dickman, a lawyer for Vasquez, speculated that one reason the Star Princess did not stop was because the cruise ship's crew didn't want to get off schedule for their next stop in Puntarenas, Costa Rica -- and, thus, lose money.

The ship did arrive in Puntarenas on March 11, noted Candy, but she strongly denied that the crew decided not to help the fishermen for financial reasons.

"This is absolutely false," she told CNN by e-mail.

Princess Cruises released a statement Monday saying it was "deeply saddened that two Panamanian men perished at sea" and "very sorry for the tragic loss of life."

"Because of what we suspect was a case of unfortunate miscommunication, regretfully the captain of the Star Princess was never notified of the passengers' concern. Had he been advised, he would have had the opportunity to respond, as he has done numerous times throughout his career," the statement said. "This is an upsetting and emotional issue for us all, as no employee onboard a Princess ship would purposefully ignore someone in distress. It is our ethical and maritime responsibility to provide assistance to any vessel in need, and it is not an uncommon occurrence for our ships to be involved in a rescue at sea. In fact, we have done so more than 30 times over the last decade."

Jeff Gilligan, one of the cruise ship passengers who said he saw the stranded fisherman and alerted the cruise ship's crew, told CNN last month that he took a picture of the fishing boat from about two miles away.

"It's just a horrible thing. I'm sick about it," he said.

He saw the tiny vessel through high-powered scopes, he said. It appeared not to be moving, he said, but the men onboard were.

"We were looking through powerful spotting scopes before I took those photographs, and we -- the three of us -- couldn't come up with any reasonable explanation why somebody would have been flagging with two different colors of cloth, clothing or whatever it was, to our ship from perhaps two miles away on a little boat that wasn't moving, over 100 miles from the coast," he said.

At the time, he and his fellow passengers thought the cruise ship crew members would do something.

"We fully expected the ship to turn around or to send a tender boat out to investigate ... our suspicions," he said.

Vasquez's lawsuit seeks compensation for physical, emotional and psychological injuries that it alleges he suffered as a result of the conduct of cruise line employees.

The story of Vasquez's survival gained international coverage when the Ecuadorian navy rescued him north of the Galapagos Islands in March.

The trio's February 24 fishing trip had started out well, according to Vasquez's mother, Nilsa de la Cruz. The three caught plenty of fish, she said. But the boat's engine died without warning and, with no tools and scant navigational experience, there was little the trio could do, de la Cruz told CNN.

Ecuadorian Rear Adm. Freddy Garcia Calle said that at the time he was found, the 18-year-old showed "severe signs of dehydration and lack of nutrition."

He said the survivor had thrown his friends' bodies into the ocean "because they had become badly decomposed."

CNN's Brian Todd, Dugald McConnell, Catherine E. Shoichet and Rafael Romo contributed to this report.

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