Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Marc Schumacher has granted trial attorney John H. "Jack" Hickey's motion to add a claim for punitive damages to a lawsuit alleging Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCCL) failed to fix a known toxic gas leak on board the Monarch of the Seas before it killed three and injured several crew members (Case Number: 08-45343CA05), according to a press release issued on behalf of the Hickey law firm.
The decision was said to have come after Judge Schumacher examined evidence and reviewed deposition testimony during an extensive evidentiary hearing to determine if RCCL's alleged conduct was either intentional or constituted gross negligence. Punitive damages, which are not awarded in every civil case, are designed to punish a defendant for any wrongdoing and to deter bad conduct said Hickey.
"If we are successful, the jury will determine the amount of the punitive damages following the trial," said Hickey who is representing former Staff Captain Bjoern Eidissen of Norway in legal action against RCCL. "The jury may take into account the net worth of Royal Caribbean, which according to SEC filings is approximately $7 billion."
The fatal accident happened while the Monarch of the Seas with more than 3,400 passengers and crew was docked at the Port of Los Angeles in September 2005. According to the complaint, RCCL failed to maintain the permanent ballast tanks onboard the ship. These tanks contain mixtures of various types of water including gray water, pulper water and seawater. This combination creates hydrogen sulfide, a colorless, deadly gas that in the first minutes of inhaling it has a foul odor of rotten eggs. After the first few minutes, the person inhaling it smells nothing. Prolonged exposure can cause severe brain and lung damage while a high concentration can cause death.
The lawsuit claims as result of poor maintenance, one of the ballast tanks became clogged and the mixture inside created hydrogen sulfide gas. Hickey said the Marine Department directed RCCL to reroute the piping to that tank. When the workers assigned to fix the piping opened the tank, lethal hydrogen sulfide gas escaped in a huge cloud killing three of them. Eidissen and other personnel who responded to the emergency were also exposed to the hydrogen sulfide gas.
According to the lawsuit, records show Royal Caribbean never alerted the crew that a worker fixing the same pipe in March 2005 was overcome by the noxious fumes and nearly died and continued to operate the vessel basically as normal even hours after the second accident in September.
The complaint states that a condition of class, an approval of inspection with exception, was issued. The exception required that the subject bilge tank must be vented overboard when the ship was at sea. Hickey claims the recommended procedure was not followed properly, therefore endangering the health of passengers and crewmembers.
The lawsuit claims that the venting of the gas from the location of its origin was accomplished by a jury rig of fire hoses to the exterior of the ship. These hoses would then transfer the toxic gas from the tank to the exterior of the ship. The complaint suggests the accommodation was inadequate, and constituted a situation where the toxic hydrogen sulfide gas was blown back into the air conditioning system, exposing passengers."
The lawsuit alleges that despite the fact that Royal Caribbean represented on its logs that venting took place only when at speed and at sea, venting actually took place whenever there was a pressure build up sometimes when the ship was not at speed and even in port.
According to the lawsuit, when the ship was drifting, at anchor, or at dock, the noxious gas was sucked back into the vessel and into the passenger areas including cabins, through the air conditioning intakes. This reportedly allowed the methane and hydrogen sulfide gas to leak into habitable areas on the ship including the areas in which Eidissen worked. Attorneys said the Monarch of the Seas received numerous passenger complaints about a foul smelling gas, in addition to several complaints from a stevedore company, dockside businesses, and the workers who eventually fixed the pipe while the ship was in dry dock.