Eleventh Circuit Ruling on Negligence Standards Applicable to Cruise Line Passenger Altercation During Disembarkation Provides Airlines With Issues to Consider

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In Fuentes v. Classica Cruise Operator Ltd., plaintiff alleged that a co-passenger attacked him, causing him to suffer injuries while disembarking from an international cruise. Plaintiff brought numerous negligence claims, including failure to warn claims. The district court dismissed plaintiff’s claims on summary judgment. Plaintiff appealed.

The Eleventh Circuit, similar to the district court, applied maritime law—not state law—in finding that summary judgment in favor of the cruise line was proper, explaining that plaintiff’s injury occurred while the ship was in navigable waters. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, agreeing that the cruise line did not have any particular duty to protect appellant from an attack that was not foreseeable under the circumstances of the case.

Under maritime law, the cruise line owed its passengers a duty of reasonable care under the circumstances. Plaintiff did not present evidence that his injuries were foreseeable to the cruise line, which had no knowledge of a prior verbal dispute between plaintiff and his alleged assailant or notice—constructive or actual—of any specific risk that passengers were likely to attack one another physically during disembarkation.

Significantly, the Eleventh Circuit explained that cruise lines are not general insurers of their passengers’ safety: their duty extends to protecting passengers from particular, foreseeable injuries. There was no such injury here.

Airlines may encounter similar situations, especially as the global pandemic appears to have heightened tensions among passengers on flights. Airlines may face different standards depending on whether the flight is international and, thus, likely to involve the liability provisions of the Montreal Convention.

If the Montreal Convention applies, only injuries arising from an “accident” occurring during the flight or during the embarkation or disembarkation processes would be compensable. (An “accident” is an “unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger.”)

If the flight is domestic and the Montreal Convention does not apply, then courts addressing claims arising from embarkation or disembarkation processes will look to state law to supply the relevant negligence standards.

As passengers more frequently act out in aggression, Fuentes demonstrates the importance of airlines gauging and evaluating specific risks of passenger-on-passenger attacks in the embarkation or disembarkation process, and provides analysis that is close (or at least instructive) to the analyses required under the various potential legal frameworks.

Fuentes v. Classica Cruise Operator Ltd., 32 F.4th 1311 (11th Cir. 2022).

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