The Ruby Princess cruise ship off the coast of Sydney (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

The first legal action has begun in Australia against the owners of the Ruby Princess cruise ship, with Shine lawyers filing a class action in the Federal Court.

The class action suit alleges that the outbreak of COVID-19 on the Ruby Princess, which docked in March and led to Australia’s largest virus outbreak, resulted from “a failure to take appropriate measures” to ensure passengers were safe and protected from the virus on the ship.

It alleges that this failure constituted breaches of a duty of care to passengers, and amounted to breaches of the consumer guarantees “and other provisions of Australian consumer law”.

There's more to Crikey than you think.

Get more Crikey for just $199 $99.

Subscribe now

According to Shine, more than 800 people have registered their interest.

The outbreak occurred on board a Ruby Princess cruise to New Zealand which departed Sydney on March 8 with 2700 passengers and close to 1000 crew on board.

The ship returned earlier than planned, arriving on March 19 with a number of people reporting flu-like symptoms. Twenty-two passengers subsequently died and 700 infections in Australia have been linked to passengers infected on board.

The key to the Ruby Princess saga is what happened on March 8 when the ship was due to set sail for New Zealand.

In the morning, it had docked after a previous trip on which more than 150 passengers had reported symptoms of influenza.

The ship’s subsequent departure was delayed for about six hours as the ship’s owners cleaned the ship after discussions with NSW Health officials.

Passengers have told Crikey they were given no detailed information for the delay. 

Apart from how the Ruby Princess prepared for departure on March 8, there are also questions about how much its parent company, Carnival Corporation, knew or should have known about the incidence of COVID-19 on board its ships.

In the weeks before the Ruby Princess sailed, sister ship the Diamond Princess was forced to go into quarantine off the coast of Japan due to an outbreak on board.

At the time, it was the largest COVID-19 outbreak outside China. 

Other Carnival Corporation cruise ships were also hit by outbreaks elsewhere in the world.

According to Crikey’s legal expert Michael Bradley the class action is a straight negligence/misleading conduct action.

“They’ll claim two things,” Bradley said. “One is that Carnival represented to passengers that it would provide them with a safe, pandemic-free holiday and had taken all reasonable precautions to ensure that, whereas in fact the Ruby Princess was already a floating cesspit and the company knew or should have known that.

“And secondly, that Carnival breached its duty of care to passengers by not taking reasonable measures to prevent it from becoming the SS Typhoid Mary.”

Bradley said Shine had not limited the class action to only passengers who caught COVID-19 but included any who were “affected” by the outbreak. 

This opened the action to damages for “the ruined holiday, the trauma and mental harm everyone suffered, along with big damages for the permanent effects of having contracted COVID-19 for those who did and their families”.  

“Shine’s eyes will be lighting up,” he said.

Shine told Crikey that all 2700 passengers were eligible to join the class action “along with relatives of the deceased, carers of those who continue to be ill, and executors and administrators of the estates of the deceased”.

The Shine class action is the first in Australia against Carnival related to its handling of the pandemic. But in April a Los Angeles family filed a wrongful death lawsuit seeking damages of $1 million against Princess Cruise Lines over the death of Chung Chen, a 64-year-old passenger on the March 8 cruise. 

The legal firm taking the action, Chalik and Chalik, also zeroed in on the six-hour delay of the ship’s departure to New Zealand.

“They were apparently trying to clean the ship and have it ready to sail out again,” the firm claimed. “This tragic death could have been avoided if Princess Cruises chose safety over profits.”

A NSW Special Commission of Inquiry has heard evidence of bungles by NSW Health as well as allegations of a poor medical response on board the Ruby Princess. There has also been evidence of a failure to enforce social distancing on board the ship.

In a statement, Carnival told Crikey: “We have the utmost respect for our guests and understand the worldwide impact of COVID-19 including on some of our guests, crew members and their families. The NSW Special Commission of Inquiry, in which we are participating, is in the process of establishing the facts in relation to Ruby Princess. It is not our intention to respond to the assertions of class action lawyers.

There's more to Crikey than you think.

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

And now you get more from your membership than ever before.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
Get more and save 50%