January 05, 2021 Top Story

No COVID-19, No Emotional Distress Claim

Physical symptoms of disease are required to recover for emotional distress

By Andrew K. Robertson

Fear of contracting COVID-19, without more, is insufficient to state a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, according to one federal court. In Weissberger et al. v. Princess Cruise Lines, the court held that permitting fear-based emotional distress claims would lead to “bizarre results” and unpredictable and unlimited liability. ABA Section of Litigation leaders believe that the plaintiffs may have had a viable claim with better facts and that the court expressed legitimate public policy concerns.

A Princess cruise ship continued en route to the next destination before telling everyone a couple passengers had disembarked with COVID-19 symptoms.

A Princess cruise ship continued en route to the next destination before telling everyone a couple passengers had disembarked with COVID-19 symptoms.

iStockphoto by Getty Images

COVID-19 Outbreak on Cruise Ship Leads to Suit for Emotional Distress

The Grand Princess cruise ship departed from San Francisco for Hawaii on February 21, 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Onboard were 62 passengers continuing from the ship’s prior voyage to Mexico. While en route to Hawaii, the cruise staff informed the 62 Mexico passengers that they had potentially been exposed to COVID-19, as two persons from the earlier leg of their trip had disembarked in San Francisco with COVID-19 symptoms. By March 6, 2020, 21 people aboard had tested positive for COVID-19. On March 9, 2020, the ship docked at the Port of Oakland.

The same day, plaintiffs Ronald and Eva Weissberger sued the cruise line for negligence and gross negligence in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. The plaintiffs alleged the cruise line breached its duty to keep passengers safe by failing to properly screen passengers or warn them of possible exposure to COVID-19. Though the plaintiffs did not contract the virus or exhibit any of its symptoms, they alleged that they had suffered emotional distress from fear of becoming infected. The defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the plaintiffs had failed to allege that they were in the “zone of danger” for contracting the virus.

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