March 6, 2014 9:44:13 AM
MIAMI -- About three dozen passengers who sailed on the ill-fated Carnival Triumph cruise ship that drifted at sea for days are hoping to collect thousands of dollars apiece as a result of lingering medical and mental problems they say were caused by their nightmarish experience.
Their lawsuit, the first to go to trial since the February 2013 cruise, is being vigorously defended by Miami-based Carnival Corp., which contends the passengers cannot show such problems as kidney stones, post-traumatic stress disorder and scratchy throats are linked to unsanitary conditions or the fire that disabled the engine.
At stake is perhaps millions of dollars, as well as the industry's restrictive policy -- printed on each ticket -- that governs the kinds of lawsuits passengers can file. Two maritime law experts also said the trial already set an important precedent in cruise line cases when the judge ruled Carnival was negligent simply because the fire broke out, regardless of the reason.
"Ships shouldn't catch fire in the middle of the sea for no reason," said Robert Peltz, a Miami maritime attorney not involved in the Triumph case.
Passenger Debra Oubre, of Friendswood, Texas, who said she has worked in cruise line shore operations and has enjoyed a dozen cruises, said she joined the suit to hold someone accountable.
"Many of us, if not all of us, were physically or emotionally hurt," she said. "I just want the truth to be told."
Again and again during the three-week trial, Triumph passengers have told their story to Senior U.S. District Judge Donald Graham, who is hearing the case without a jury. Testimony wrapped up Wednesday, and Graham said he would take written closing arguments and issue a decision later on whether the passengers deserve any damages.
Some Triumph passengers testified on Carnival's behalf Wednesday, including James Ede, of Houston, who said the crew kept them well-informed and provided plenty of water.
"I got almost a little tired of people saying, 'How can I help you?'" Ede said of the crew.
According to Carnival, at least nine other Triumph lawsuits are pending in South Florida federal court, including a proposed class-action that seeks to represent all of the roughly 3,000 passengers aboard the ship.
Attorneys involved in the current trial say its outcome could affect what happens in these other cases, although the legal claims are somewhat different.
Carnival tickets require lawsuits against the world's largest cruise line to be filed only in South Florida federal court. The tickets also state that passengers agree they can't bring a class-action lawsuit, but some lawyers are challenging that based on negligence claims.
The 893-foot Triumph left Galveston, Texas on Feb. 7, 2013, for a four-day cruise highlighted by a stop in Cozumel, Mexico. After departing Cozumel, a fire broke out at about 5 a.m. in the ship's engine room Feb. 10. It left the ship without engine power and most of its electricity, forcing passengers to endure human waste running down hallways, limited water supplies, noxious odors and extreme heat.
After about five days in the Gulf of Mexico, the ship was finally towed to Mobile, Ala., and the weary, bedraggled passengers disembarked Feb. 14. Carnival sought to make amends by offering each passenger a $500 check, a voucher for a future cruise, refunds of most on-board expenses and reimbursement for transportation, parking and so forth.
For many of the passengers, those offers were an insult and multiple lawsuits were filed seeking millions of dollars in damages. In the current trial, Judge Graham has ruled that passengers cannot collect punitive damages and may only get damages for past and future medical costs that are conclusively linked to what happened on the Triumph.
Many of the 33 passengers involved in the trial complain of lingering emotional issues such as PTSD, anxiety and depression; some have physical ailments they blame on squalid conditions, including leg pain, diarrhea, upper respiratory problems and even aggravated hemorrhoids.
Larry Poret, of Lufkin, Texas, who took the cruise with his then-12-year-old daughter Rebecca, said he remains scarred by how frightened she was, especially trying to sleep out on deck in pitch black nights.
"Something that was supposed to be so much fun turned out to be a nightmare. I felt like I let my daughter down," Poret said. "You just can't get it out of your mind."
Most of the passengers are seeking $5,000 in damages a year from Carnival for the rest of their lives, claiming they will need continuous medical monitoring because of what happened aboard ship. They want the money in lump sums based on government tables estimating their life expectancies. Poret, for example, would get about $115,000 and his daughter, who is much younger, an estimated $345,000.
An expert witness for the passengers, Dr. Ernest Schiodo, testified that each person's health problems were "caused by the exposure or aggravated by the exposure" to the Triumph's horrific conditions, including the human waste. That prompted a pointed question from the judge.
"Does that mean if you use a portable toilet you need this special testing for the rest of your life?" Graham said.
"Not if you use one, but if you fall in and wallow in it for a couple of days, yes," Schiodo said.
Carnival attorney Curtis Mase has asked Graham to reject all of the damage claims. In court papers, Mase said the passengers either haven't proved their health issues are linked to the Triumph cruise or haven't shown they suffer from any lingering problems at all.
The passengers, Mase wrote, "are not entitled to damages simply for experiencing the conditions on the vessel." And, he added, "they failed to prove that Carnival's conduct was the legal cause of the injury."
In the aftermath, Carnival announced a $300 million program to add emergency generators, upgrade fire safety and improve engine rooms on all 24 of its ships. The cruise line also said it would repay the U.S. government an unspecified amount for the costs to taxpayers of responses to disabling accidents on the Triumph and a previous disabled ship, the Splendor.
As for the Triumph, it was repaired and refitted in Mobile, but not before it broke free during a windstorm and sustained about $2.7 million in damage and a dock worker drowned. It was returned to service last summer.
Carnival's final witness Wednesday was Suzanne Vazquez, director of guest claims and litigation. She was asked which ship is currently the cruise line's top-ranked vessel based on customer feedback.
"The Triumph," she said.