While the novel coronavirus outbreak on massive cruise liners has quarantined thousands, sickened hundreds and even resulted in a handful of deaths, one maritime law expert warns that there may be very little legal recourse that can be taken by those whose lives have been impacted by the pandemic at sea.
Nearly 700 people have become infected by COVID-19 on cruise ships, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. As cruise ship quarantine sagas dominate headlines, a handful of major carriers -- including the embattled Princess Cruises which suffered two onboard outbreaks -- took the bold step of canceling all cruises in the near future. The move comes as some law experts warn there is very little infected passengers can do to hold cruise operators liable if they become infected on board due to a web of international and maritime laws.
"There is very little recourse if you go sail and then you get coronavirus due to cruise lines' negligence or recklessness," Jim Walker, a maritime lawyer and cruise industry safety advocate, told ABC News.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has said that the relationship between the fare-paying passenger and a cruise line is a governing contract," he added.
As a result, most cruise tickets often include paragraphs of fine print outlining how, when and where you are able to file a lawsuit against the cruise operator, Walker added.
Still, Americans who are injured or sickened on a foreign-flagged ship "are permitted to file a lawsuit against one of these foreign cruise lines," Walker said, though you would have to navigate and "comply with the terms and conditions of the passenger tickets, which really set forth the limitations that exist on your claim."
For example, with Princess Cruise Lines, a Bermuda-registered corporation that has been in headlines recently after two coronavirus outbreaks aboard its ships, "irrespective of where you live or where the accident happened," you would have to file a lawsuit against them in Los Angeles, according to Walker.
Moreover, many of the major players in the industry -- including those that are popular among American cruise-goers -- are incorporated in foreign countries such as Bermuda and Panama. When ships are flagged in these foreign countries, this not only allows operators to avoid certain U.S. taxes and labor laws, but also creates a gray area when it comes to liabilities and passenger safety issues, according to Walker.
"They all fly the foreign flag of convenience," Walker said. "Which means they fly the flag of the country that they choose to register their ships in."
For the most part, the countries where these ships are flagged "are not in the picture" if you're talking about an injury to a passenger, Walker added.
"The flag countries, the country where these ships are registered, as a practical manner are not going to do anything," he added. "They are not going to investigate anything, you could have the worst ship catastrophe, no one from the Bahamas or Panama is going to come do anything," he alleged.
As passengers speak out about the terror aboard these ships and experts warn there is little that can be done to hold operators accountable, the U.S. Department of State urged that Americans "should not travel by cruise ship" amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
"While the U.S. government has evacuated some cruise ship passengers in recent weeks, repatriation flights should not be relied upon as an option for U.S. citizens under the potential risk of quarantine by local authorities," the advisory states.
Despite the legal roadblocks, one elderly couple aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship that has experienced a coronavirus outbreak filed a lawsuit against Princess Cruise Lines seeking damages in excess of $1 million. The lawsuit was filed last Monday in Los Angeles Federal Court -- just before the company announced it was suspending its fleet -- according to court documents.
While it will likely be an uphill battle, Walker urges that if you are seeking legal help involving a cruise ship case, like the couple who filed the suit while still quarantined aboard the quarantined ship, you should not wait too long to take action.
Princess Cruises told ABC News that it does not comment on pending litigation.
Late last week just days after the suit was filed, however, the company announced it was voluntarily suspending its entire fleet of cruise ships for two months amid the pandemic.
“Princess Cruises is a global vacation company that serves more than 50,000 guests daily from 70 countries as part of our diverse business, and it is widely known that we have been managing the implications of COVID-19 on two continents,” Jan Swartz, the president of Princess Cruises, said in a statement.
“By taking this bold action of voluntarily pausing the operations of our ships, it is our intention to reassure our loyal guests, team members and global stakeholders of our commitment to the health, safety and well-being of all who sail with us, as well as those who do business with us, and the countries and communities we visit around the world,” Swartz added.
Other big cruise lines announced similar plans amid the outbreak. Last Friday, Royal Caribbean Cruises also announced it was suspending all cruises in the U.S. for a month. Norwegian Cruise Lines similarly said it was temporarily suspending all voyages embarking until April 11 for its three brands.