As the home of two of America’s three busiest cruise ship ports and the headquarters of numerous cruise companies, the South Florida metropolitan area hosts a considerable amount of litigation involving personal injury at sea. A common surprise to many litigants, however, is that Florida law does not apply in these actions. Instead, federal admiralty law, also known as maritime law, controls the disposition of recovery for those harmed aboard ships on navigable waters. One recent case, Gandhi v. Carnival Corporation, demonstrates how application of admiralty law can limit the possibility of full recovery for those injured on cruise ships and the importance of understanding the nuances of this distinct body of law.
In Gandhi, parents of a child injured aboard a Carnival Cruise Lines ship brought suit against the company, both personally and on their daughter’s behalf. The plaintiffs’ daughter was injured while standing in a ship elevator when one of her arms was drawn into a space into which an elevator door was closing. Although her arm was ensnared, the elevator door attempted to open and close several times, a process which continued until a fellow passenger freed the arm with assistance of a chair leg. As a result, the child suffered a deep laceration to one of her elbows, severing of several tendons, and a fracture. Her father, who witnessed the entire ordeal, further alleged to have suffered severe emotional trauma. The parents brought suit against Carnival in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida for the following claims: a negligence claim for damages of the minor child, a claim for damages pursuant to the negligent infliction of emotional distress, a damages claim for medical expenses incurred, and a damages claim relating to the loss of filial consortium. Carnival brought a motion to strike provisions from the first claim and to dismiss the remaining claims, and the court, applying admiralty law, sided with Carnival.
First, as a preliminary matter, the court noted that general maritime law controlled in this action and that neither general common law nor state law would be consulted unless there was an absence of maritime law on an issue to be decided. Next, the court moved to the plaintiffs’ claim of negligence. Although Carnival did not move to dismiss this claim, it did move to strike parts of the pleading that appeared to improperly assert the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Generally, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur permits a jury or other fact-finder to infer negligence when the circumstances of person’s injury are of a variety that usually does not occur in the absence of negligence. Although maritime law allows for the inference of res ipsa loquitur to be raised in a claim for negligence, the court agreed that is was improper to raise the doctrine in the pleadings, since res ipsa loquitur is not a cause of action but rather an evidentiary principle on which a court may, in its discretion, later instruct the jury. Next, the court turned to the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. Although Florida law allows a relative bystander to recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress when he witnesses the negligent injury of a loved one and suffers emotional trauma leading to demonstrable physical harm as a result, see Champion v. Gray, 478 So.2d 17 (Fla. 1985), maritime law adheres to the “zone of danger” test. Pursuant to this standard, one may not recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress unless he or she “sustain[s] a physical impact as a result of a defendant’s negligent conduct, or [is] placed in immediate risk of physical harm by that conduct.” Although the father in this case witnessed the injury of his daughter, there were no facts suggesting that he was in an imminent zone of danger. Accordingly, pursuant to the standard set forth in maritime law, the father could not recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress.