The Federal Court of Australia has ruled in favour of the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit brought against Carnival Cruises over its negligent handling of the Covid-19 outbreak aboard the Ruby Princess which docked in Sydney Harbour on 8 March 2020.
On 19 March 2020 after being given the all-clear by New South Wales health officials, the company allowed all of its 2700 passengers to disembark, despite 602 of them being positive for Covid.
That act unleashed the virus across New South Wales and beyond – 28 of the passengers died from the disease and it is estimated the conduct is responsible for 10% of all Covid deaths.
The New South Wales government later launched a Special Commission of Inquiry which released a scathing report labelling the conduct of state health officials as ‘inexcusable’ and ‘inexplicable’, finding ‘serious mistakes’ were made by bureaucrats who approved full disembarkation without checks or scrutiny.
Despite calls for health officials to be prosecuted for the offence of criminal negligence or at least suspended if not terminated from their positions, none were ever held accountable and those affected resorted to filing a class action against the owner of the cruise line company.
Justice Stewart of the Federal Court delivered a lengthy judgment in the matter of Karpik v Carnival plc (The Ruby Princess) (Initial Trial)  FCA 1280 on 25 October 2023 – which is known as ‘representative proceedings’ and was brought by one plaintiff on behalf of more than 800 others.
The case is colloquially known as the Ruby Princess class action.
There lead plaintiff in the case, Susan Karpik, contracted Covid on board Ruby Princess and suffered distress and disappointment as a result of the trip.
She made several claims against Carnival Cruises, the most significant of them being that the company:
- made misleading representations to consumers that they would have a ‘safe, relaxing and pleasurable’ 11-day round trip to New Zealand when they knew coronavirus outbreaks had been experienced shortly beforehand on vessels it operated,
- was negligent by commencing the trip in circumstances where, again, it was aware coronavirus outbreaks had previously been experienced, and
- was negligent by failing to take adequate safeguards to ensure that passengers aboard the vessel were safe.
The court ultimately found each of the above claims to be proven. The primary reason for the findings relating to misleading representations and negligence in commencing the trip was that Carnival vessels had already experienced outbreaks on the Diamond Princess in Japan, the Grand Princess of California, and an outbreak occurred on the Ruby Princess in the immediate past voyage prior to the cruise that disembarked in Sydney.
His Honour found that the cruise line’s communications with passengers prior to departing reassured them it would be safe– which was misleading in the circumstances.
He further found that the trip “carried a significant risk … and yet they proceeded regardless” – which amounted to a breach of the cruise company’s duty of care to passengers.
He said Carnival should have warned passengers about the heightened risk, and implemented screening and physical distancing, along with having a plan for appropriately isolating passengers who felt ill. The failure to do the latter made out the third mentioned claim.
No damages for personal injury
However, the court did not award the lead plaintiff personal damages over the fact she contracted Covid on board, nor for the fact she had suffered distress and disappointment due to the operator’s actions.
Susan Karpik had sought $360,000 for that claim, but his Honour found her Covid symptoms were mild and her injuries did not reach the required threshold for such a claim. This was despite the fact she passed the disease on to her husband who spent two months in hospital as a result.
His Honour further noted the company had already refunded her the $4,400 she had paid for the trip.
800 passengers represented
Representative proceedings, which are also known as class actions, require the participation of at least seven people who have legal issues in common.
They are often led by just one plaintiff and can thereby save courts an enormous amount of time by not having to deal with several or even hundreds of separate cases.
The success of the lead plaintiff will determine the orders made in respect of the group.
The Federal Court will make orders in relation to damages in the Ruby Princess class action later this year.
No criminal negligence charges
Then New South Wales Police Commissioner launched a criminal investigation into the Ruby Princess case in April 2020.
As stated, New South Wales health officials approved the free disembarkation of around 2700 passengers into Sydney in March 2020, despite many being transported to hospital with Covid-19 like symptoms and others also displaying symptoms of the disease.
State and Federal Government bodies blame-shifted in the weeks following the docking of the cruise ship, when it became very clear that Ruby Princess passengers had unleashed Covid-19 not just into New South Wales, but other states too.
Once disembarking from the cruise ship, passengers were free to travel around New South Wales, or to other states domestically as they made their way home.
At the time, the Police Chief Mick Fuller promised an investigation into whether state or federal biosecurity laws were broken.
However, nothing more has ever been reported of the investigation, and no one has been brought to account let alone prosecuted for a criminal offence such as criminal negligence, which is a crime under section 54 of the Crimes Act 1900 carrying a maximum penalty of 2 years in prison.
Mick Fuller resigned from the New South Wales Police Force in 2022.
The subsequent investigations
Two subsequent government initiated investigations at a federal and state level were subsequently undertaken and identified critical errors and a ‘gaping hole’ in the biosecurity network.
The Federal Report by the Commonwealth’s Inspector-General of Biosecurity found the Department of Agriculture made a number of crucial errors, including failing to follow protocols or to interview sick passengers, including giving travellers an “illness checklist” and that Australian authorities failed to interview the ship’s master or inspect the vessel’s medical logs.
The New South Wales Government inquiry found that state health officials made “inexcusable”, “inexplicable” errors in the way the Ruby Princess was handled, specifically by assessing the ship passengers as “low risk”, and making the decision to “do nothing” despite all the expert advice at hand.
The State-led inquiry came to the same conclusions as the Federal investigation, that Department of Agriculture officers did not follow proper processes when inspecting the Ruby Princess, neglecting to complete health checklists as required by a national protocol.
It also found that the decision to let passengers disembark and travel onwards both domestically and internationally also defied a Public Health Order that was in force at the time, requiring passengers entering NSW from any other country to self-isolate in suitable accommodation for 14 days.