Passengers suing Carnival recount ill-fated Triumph cruise
A federal judge has already ruled Carnival liable and responsible for fire
Yet the cruise line is not responsible for providing a safe voyage
Lawyers are already arguing over how much compensation is due
One year after the Carnival Triumph cruise ship caught fire and lost power in the Gulf of Mexico, stranding frightened passengers in filth and misery for days, thinking about the ill-fated voyage can make Kimberly Northom Townsend break down and cry.
That’s what happened in the middle of her testimony before a U.S. federal judge in Miami last week, during the first civil trial about the February 2013 voyage.
Townsend, a 54-year-old mother of two and grandmother of three, was one of 31 passengers who are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Carnival, alleging the company’s responsibility for the ill-fated voyage.
She had just finished testifying in graphic detail what it was like on the ship as it sat disabled for days in the Gulf. Terrified passengers huddled on decks worried about their safety, she said, with foul toilets overflowing into hallways, no power, near-total darkness, long lines for rationed water and almost no food.
Townsend described how she finally reached her mother on the phone when the broken ship got towed into Mobile, Alabama, days late from what was supposed to have been the vacation of a lifetime. She told the court she begged her mother to come get her immediately. And as she spoke, her voice trailed away, she looked down, and began sobbing in the witness chair.
Townsend was one of numerous Carnival Triumph passengers who testified, sometimes crying, about the conditions on the boat and how they still suffer one year later.
Who got injured and how much is it worth?
The trial is expected to continue for several weeks, with lawyers for passengers suing Carnival Corp. and lawyers for the cruise line arguing over whether, and to what degree, passengers got injured, if they remain hurt and how much Carnival should pay for those damages.
But while testimony has finished only its first week, the legal case has already brought some unusual and significant rulings from the judge, U.S. District Judge Donald Graham.
Before testimony began, Graham ruled Carnival is liable and responsible for the fire on board the Triumph because of negligence on the part of the company. The judge agreed with the plaintiffs, who argued a presumption of liability based upon an older common law idea of negligence. Going back to the Romans, the Latin doctrine of “res ipsa loquitur” means roughly “the thing speaks for itself.”
The judge’s ruling is sweeping and unusual in a major cruise ship disaster, with larger possible implications for future cruises and passengers.
“The Court finds that the record evidence demonstrates that the fire and resulting conditions experienced by Plaintiffs aboard the Triumph is a mishap that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence,” wrote Graham. “It is highly likely that Carnival was responsible for a reasonably probable causes to which the accident could have be (sic) attributed. Here, the facts of the occurrence warrant the inference of negligence.”
Passengers not promised a safe voyage
But Graham also ruled that the company did not breach its contract with passengers, agreeing with Carnival’s argument that when passengers bought a ticket, they were never promised a safe voyage at all, which may come as a big surprise to future cruise passengers.
“The contract ticket makes no express guarantee for safe passage, a seaworthy vessel, adequate and wholesome food, and sanitary and safe living conditions,” wrote Graham. The ruling reflects the little protections afforded to passengers as currently written by many cruise ship companies.
Graham also ruled that Carnival does not have to pay punitive damages to plaintiffs who say they were hurt and are seeking financial compensation.
“Carnival contends that there is no evidence of intentional wrongdoing,” Graham wrote. “Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate and the record evidence does not support a finding of intentional misconduct.”
Next on the agenda: Graham must determine which passengers were injured, how much Carnival must pay for those injuries and how long the company must pay. Testimony from passengers is expected to continue for at least another week.
Many passengers have already testified to injuries they sustained during the cruise, though few are physical in nature.
‘I got mentally injured’
“I did not get physically injured. I got mentally injured,” testified Jean Cripps, a 74-year-old grandmother who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. She went on the cruise with her husband, Alton, who has diabetes and a hurt leg that forced him to retire disabled. The elderly couple was on the cruise as a present from their son, David, and grandson, Easton, who went with them.
“It never ends, the whole experience never ends,” testified Cripps. “It’s over and over again. We had two good days,” she said, referring to the first days of the cruise.
“But that’s not what I think about. I think about the smell, the stench and the bad things. All the memories come flooding back, and I can’t stop them.”
Among the worst memories, Cripps testified, was the fear that the ship, which listed severely after the fire, would actually turn over and sink.
Alton had to go several days without his diabetes medicine and was forced to climb numerous flights of often slippery stairs with his bad leg, causing him to fall once.
“It was a horrible experience,” testified Michelle Key, 48, who went on the cruise with her mother, Fleda Key, 68. “I walked through water and feces and urine, no telling what else,” she testified. “We would slip and slide through greasy, gross, slippery muck,” she said, adding “it was very difficult” for her mother.
Fleda Key described having terrible diarrhea on numerous occasions and having difficulty finding any toilets that were not overflowing.
Fear of dying before reaching shore
“There was lots of urine and feces all the way up to the rim of every one,” she said, explaining she “choked away the smell.” Like many of the witnesses, she testified that she lived for days in total fear that they might not finish the voyage alive. “I was fearful, downright afraid and scared,” said Fleda Key.
Her daughter, like many of those testifying, said the cruise ship company kept them in the dark, with no information about what was truly happening, and did not care for them properly.
“Carnival Cruise did not give one flip about the … passengers on that ship,” Michelle Key testified. “They did not do their best.”
When asked by Graham what Carnival should have done, she responded, “If they knew something was wrong, they should never have left the dock.”
Michelle Key may have been referring to the company’s internal documents that became public through this lawsuit in December and obtained exclusively by CNN.
The documents revealed the fiasco on board the Carnival Triumph was a problem waiting to happen. Internal company documents show that the crew of the Triumph set sail in February with only four of six generators fully operational, knowing that the company had an ongoing generator fire hazard in ships across its fleet, including the Triumph.
A Triumph generator was overdue for maintenance
The first trouble with Triumph was in diesel generator No. 6 – the one that wound up catching fire. Starting more than a year before the cruise, that generator was overdue for maintenance and often not in compliance with the safety laws of the sea, known as SOLAS, according to the ship’s engineer.
Over and over again, Carnival’s own maintenance reports stated the same thing: Diesel generator No. 6 was overdue for maintenance. The company says the fire that originated with the generator was not connected to the lack of maintenance. But, during that same period, Carnival learned about another, even more alarming safety problem in the engine room: fuel lines.
A dangerous pattern of leaks had emerged on other Carnival cruise ships, according to the company’s documents. In fact, Carnival’s Costa Allegra caught fire in the Indian Ocean in February 2012 because fuel leaked onto a hot spot and ignited. That fire left the ship without power for three days in tropical heat of nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
That would be eerily similar to what started the fire on board the Triumph one year later.
Carnival says it proactively began investigating after the Costa Allegra fire and found a big problem in a different type of fuel line. There had been nine incidents resulting in fuel leaks associated with flexible fuel lines in just two years.
On January 2, Carnival issued a compliance order, giving ships two months to address the problem to “ensure a suitable spray shield … is installed” for all diesel engines using the flexible fuel lines. “After that internal study, the company came out with a new policy to, again, shield all the flanges and the hoses,” said Mark Jackson, Carnival Cruise Lines vice president of technical operations.
What went wrong on the ‘poop’ cruise?
But Carnival did not in fact shield the part of the one hose that wound up causing the fire on board the Triumph in February.
“That hose was beneath the deck plates, and it was believed the deck plates would provide that shield,” Jackson said. “In this case, it (the fuel leak) found that gap in the hose … in the bilge plates and caused the fire.”
On February 7 – with a diesel generator still in need of overhaul and fuel line shields on some, but not all, of its flexible hoses – Triumph set sail from Galveston, Texas. Three days later, off the coast of Mexico, a fire broke out in diesel generator No. 6 when fuel sprayed from a flexible fuel line, even though that fuel line was only 6 months old.
Speaking about the ship, Jackson said: “We were totally in compliance … with all the rules and regulations. … We had … our regulating bodies on board the ship less than two weeks prior that had certified the ship to sail. Obviously, you learn things in a situation, in an incident such as the Triumph.”
While Carnival Cruise Lines insists that what happened on the Triumph was just an accident, the company has dedicated $300 million in a fleetwide safety upgrade, focusing on detecting and preventing any potential fire hazards in its engine rooms.
Attorneys for both sides declined to speak about the case during the trial but their opening statements provide some clues about their respective strategies.
Asking for compensation of $1 million
In his opening statement, plaintiffs’ attorney Frank Spagnoletti of Houston told the court, “There’s documented evidence with regard to any number of plaintiffs that show that they were physically injured, and there is ample documented evidence that shows that all of the plaintiffs were injured mentally because of the way they were exposed to this.”
When pressed for details on compensation, Spagnoletti told the court that passengers should receive anywhere from $30,000 to $1 million, depending on the severity of their injuries.
“What happened on the Triumph “is certainly not something that Carnival would ever want to have happen and would ever want its guests to experience,” said Miami attorney Curtis Mase, representing Carnival. But he also told Judge Graham that many of the plaintiffs alleging various injuries have never sought medical treatment for their injuries and do not deserve compensation.
“I think that there’s no one who I would suggest to you is entitled to receive more than $50,000, and I’m going to suggest probably lower numbers after we’ve heard all the evidence,” Mase told the court.
“There are a number who I believe deserve nothing. And I will tell you this, the one or two that I can think of who have significant injuries, they’re very much in the minority and there are only one or two.”