On July 14, 2020, Judge Gary Klausner dismissed the suit filed by Ronald and Eva Weissberger against Princess Cruise Lines in the federal Central District Court in California. Their claims were for fear of contacting COVID-19 and the emotional stress from such fear.
By way of background, the GRAND PRINCESS cruise ship had departed out of San Francisco on February 21 in the early days of the COVID pandemic. On March 9, the vessel was finally able to dock in Oakland. That same day the Weissbergers filed suit. Although they did not test positive for the virus, the Weissbergers sought emotional distress damages based on their fear of contracting the virus while quarantined on the vessel. They also sought punitive damages.
In the months since the filing of this suit, numerous copycat suits were filed virtually identical to the one filed by the Weissbergers. All involved plaintiffs who sought to recover on their fear of contracting COVID-19 did not test positive nor manifest symptoms of the virus.
Princess Lines filed for dismissal. The motions were on grounds the suits failed to state a claim for negligence because the plaintiffs failed to allege they were in the “zone of danger” to contract the virus. Further, the cruise line sought to dismiss the claims for emotional distress because they were not manifested for the plaintiffs in any physical symptoms. Last, they sought to dismiss or strike the claims for punitive damages.
In addressing the Motions to Dismiss, the Court noted that the claims under negligence were for infliction of emotional distress; there was no allegation of physical harm. In the Supreme Court case of Consolidated Rail Corp. v Gottshall decided in 1994, it was found necessary that a plaintiff satisfy a “zone of danger” test to recover for negligently inflicted emotional injury. It allowed recovery to plaintiffs who:
(1) sustained a physical impact as a result of defendant’s negligence, or
(2) were placed in immediate risk of physical harm by such negligent conduct.
The Gottshall court held that to recover under the first prong, a plaintiff must manifest some symptoms of the feared disease and not merely claim exposure with a future risk of the disease.
To recover under the second prong, a plaintiff must allege that they were placed in immediate risk of physical harm by the actions of the defendant. The Gottshall court did not supply guidance as to how to analyze when a plaintiff was in immediate risk of physical harm. Here, the Weissberger plaintiffs alleged they fell under this second prong.
Princess Lines defended that to recover under the second prong, the plaintiffs cannot merely allege proximity to individuals with COVID and the fear of contracting the disease. The Court agreed.
Judge Klausner found to allow otherwise would lead to a potential flood of trivial or possibly fraudulent suits difficult for a judge or jury to detect. It would lead to unlimited and unpredictable liability.
Because the Court was dismissing the case, it determined that a further ruling on the necessity of a physical manifestation as well as the claims for punitive damages were no longer necessary.
Click here to read the ruling in its entirety.