Carnival Australia has been found to be negligent and engaged in misleading representations after a COVID-19 outbreak on Ruby Princess in 2020, the Federal Court has found.

About 2600 passengers were on board the Ruby Princess voyage from Sydney in March 8 2020, before a COVID-19 outbreak forced the vessel to turn around. It docked at the Overseas Passenger Terminal on Thursday, March 19, 2020 with 2651 passengers on board. More than 660 people tested positive to the virus, resulting in the deaths of 28 passengers.

Carnival Plc and Princess Cruise Line, the companies responsible for the Ruby Princess cruise ship, was found to have breached consumer law when it embarked on the trip.

However, the court found retired nurse Susan Karpik, the lead applicant in the class action, did not reach the threshold for damages for personal injuries. Although she was found to be entitled for damages related to distress and disappointment, this will be at no more than the $4400 refund already provided by Carnival. As Carnival had already refunded all passengers the cost of the cruise, the judge found the company had already satisfied this claim.

Retired nurse Susan Karpik, outside the court with Shine lawyers, has succeeded in her case, as the lead applicant, against Carnival.

The class action alleged Carnival, which chartered the ship, and its owner/operator Princess Cruise Lines, breached duties of care and Australian Consumer Law. Justice Angus Stewart today found Carnival was negligent in certain respects with regard to the precautions taken for passenger safety.

He also found the company made misleading representations in pre-holiday communications with passengers, including by suggesting it was “reasonably safe” to take the cruise.

Carnival’s response to the judgment was brief.

“We have seen the judgment and are considering it in detail,” a statement said. “The pandemic was a difficult time in Australia’s history, and we understand how heartbreaking it was for those affected.”

Shine Lawyers sought damages for Mrs Karpik’s distress and disappointment, and pain and suffering for her psychiatric injury and long COVID.

“I am pleased with this outcome as it brings a degree of comfort for all passengers who were worse off as a result of travelling on the Ruby Princess,” Karpik said. “It’s of course only a partial win as 28 lives were lost on this cruise.

“There are many individuals and families who will never recover from this loss.

“ As Ruby Princess passengers, we expected that if there was any risk to our safety, wellbeing, and health, they would never have taken the Ruby Princess out of Sydney Harbour,” Karpik said.

Vicky Antzoulatos, Shine Lawyers Joint Head of Class Actions, who ran the case said, “today is a warning for cruise companies to put passengers ahead of profits”.

“While the judgment is a victory for Mrs Karpik and other passengers, nothing will compensate or bring back the 28 people who contracted COVID on the cruise ship
and passed away as a result.

“Carnival should now do the right thing and compensate all the passengers rather than prolong the matter through further litigation,” she said.

Carnival argued that 696 US passengers who were subject to US Terms & Conditions, which contained a class action waiver clause, should not be included in the group.
The High Court is yet to determine this issue.

The trial commenced on October 12, 2022 after two years of preparation and ran for five weeks, with closing submissions on liability heard in the final week. This is the
first class action in the world to take on a cruise company and succeed.

Passengers can still register for the class action here.

Duty of care disregarded, given previous outbreaks

Justice Stewart said the cruise line owed Ms Karpik a duty of care to take “reasonable care as to her health and safety”, particularly as she suffered psychiatric injuries as a result of seeing her husband, Henry, contract the virus and become hospitalised for two months.

Given Carnival had already experienced outbreaks on the Diamond Princess of Japan, the Grand Princess of California, and the outbreak on the Ruby Princess in the immediate past voyage, Justice Stewart said a decision to proceed with the cruise “carried a significant risk…and yet they proceeded regardless”.

Referring to communication with passengers prior to departing, in which Carnival reassured them about their safety, Justice Stewart said they made “misleading representations that it was reasonably safe”.

The judgment set out that Carnival should have warned passengers about the heightened risk of contracting the virus, should have implemented screenings and physical distancing, and isolated the ill passengers onboard from 11 March onwards.

The matter has been listed for a further case management hearing and final orders on 10 November.

In 2020, a special commission of inquiry found NSW Health made a number of serious mistakes of its handling of the Ruby Princess outbreak including the delay in sending swabs for COVID-19 testing and assessing the cruise ship as low risk.

A special commission of inquiry investigated the decisions made by Carnival Australia, NSW Health and Federal Government agencies into what became on of the biggest causes of coronavirus infections in NSW.