August 22, 2019, Trial News | The American Association For Justice

August 22, 2019, Trial News

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Eleventh Circuit says cruise lines have duty to warn of sexual assault risk

Mandy Brown

photo of the front of a cruise ship on the water

The Eleventh Circuit has revived a suit against Royal Caribbean Cruises, ruling that the complaint sufficiently pleaded that the defendant negligently failed to help prevent the rape of a passenger. Attorneys say that the decision confirms that cruise lines have a duty to act to prevent foreseeable sexual assaults committed by passengers and sets new circuit precedent that cruise lines must warn passengers of the known risk of these attacks.
 

The Eleventh Circuit has revived a suit against Royal Caribbean Cruises, ruling that the complaint sufficiently pleaded that the defendant negligently failed to help prevent the rape of a passenger. Attorneys say that the decision confirms that cruise lines have a duty to act to prevent foreseeable sexual assaults committed by passengers and sets new circuit precedent that cruise lines must warn passengers of the known risk of these attacks. (K.T. v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, 2019 WL 3312530 (11th Cir. July 24, 2019).)

The plaintiff—a minor at the time—joined her sisters and grandparents on a multiday cruise operated by the defendant. According to the amended complaint, on the first night of the trip, a group of male passengers gave the plaintiff multiple alcoholic drinks in the lounge and other public areas of the ship. After she was “obviously incapacitated,” the men led her to a cabin and raped her. The complaint alleged that all of the events outside of the cabin occurred in view of crewmembers, including those monitoring the security cameras.

The district court dismissed the complaint, finding it did not “sufficiently allege that Royal Caribbean breached its duty of care or that any breach proximately caused her injuries.” The Eleventh Circuit reversed.

Whether the defendant’s duty of “ordinary reasonable care under the circumstances” included the obligation to intervene to protect the plaintiff depended on whether it had “actual or constructive notice of the risk-creating condition.” The court cited several sections of the complaint that established that the defendant “allegedly knew a lot” about the risk the plaintiff faced.

The complaint specified that the danger of sexual assault was foreseeable by the defendant. For example, the complaint alleged that Royal Caribbean “had experienced and had actual knowledge of . . . sexual crimes and other violence between passengers” and that it “knew or should have known, that the high risk to its passengers of crime and injury aboard the vessels was enhanced by [its] sale of copious quantities of alcohol on its vessels.” The court found that these and other statements sufficiently alleged that the danger of sexual assault was foreseeable and known to the defendant, which meant that its duty of ordinary care “included the duty to monitor and regulate the behavior of its passengers.”

Turning to whether the defendant breached that duty, the court found that the complaint sufficiently alleged that because “crewmembers did nothing to prevent the large group of men from plying [the plaintiff] with enough alcohol to incapacitate her and did nothing to stop those men from leading her away to a private cabin, Royal Caribbean breached the duty of ordinary care it owed her.”  If these allegations are true, then the defendant proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries because “but for Royal Caribbean’s breach of its duties of care to [the plaintiff] she would not have been brutalized and gang raped.”

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that holding it liable under these circumstances would effectively make it strictly liable for any harm passengers suffered while on its ships. The decision, the court said, reiterated established negligence standards and held cruise lines accountable for failing to prevent foreseeable or known harms.

The court also revived the plaintiff’s second claim that the defendant negligently failed to warn her and her grandparents of the known danger of sexual assault aboard the ship. Citing Keefe v. Bahama Cruise Lines, Inc. (867 F.2d 1318 (11th Cir. 1989)), the court noted that the defendant’s duty of care includes a duty to warn of known dangers aboard its ships. The court found that the complaint sufficiently pleaded that the defendant had breached this duty and that this failure to warn was a “but-for cause of the harm” the plaintiff suffered. The court quoted numerous relevant allegations in the complaint, among them the plaintiff’s claim that “Royal Caribbean willfully chooses not to warn its passengers about rapes and sexual assaults aboard its ships so as not to scare any prospective passengers away.”

The author of the opinion, Chief Judge Ed Carnes, submitted a special concurrence to highlight that “publicly available data (of which [the court] can take judicial notice) reinforces the allegations in the complaint that Royal Caribbean knew or should have known about the danger of sexual assault aboard its cruise ships.” This information, Carnes wrote, supplements the plaintiff’s allegations and supports the conclusion that the complaint states valid claims.

Miami attorney Michael Winkleman, who represents the plaintiff, called the opinion a “landmark decision” and noted that it’s “the first to put cruise lines on notice that they have a duty to warn passengers of the significant prevalence of rapes and sexual assaults on their ships. The crux of the defendant’s argument was that it couldn’t do anything to prevent the harm the plaintiff suffered because it wasn’t foreseeable—and the court rightfully rejected this claim.”

Although the defendant may seek further appellate review, Winkleman observed that attorneys should be prepared to monitor how cruise lines respond to the standards the court described, particularly the duty to warn.

Houston maritime attorney Michael Doyle said the decision correctly protects passenger safety. “The Eleventh Circuit confirmed what maritime, as well as land-based, practitioners would expect as a reasonable standard of care for the protection of cruise ship passengers, especially minors: The cruise line’s employees cannot assist bad actors in incapacitating a young woman and then stand by silently while she is taken away to be sexually assaulted.”

The Eleventh Circuit also emphasized the civil justice system’s role in protecting public safety. “Again, if the allegations of the complaint are true,” the court wrote, “Royal Caribbean’s approach to protecting passengers from being sexually assaulted and raped certainly could be improved. One of the purposes of tort law is to spur along such improvements.”