MIAMI – Florida trial attorney John H. “Jack” Hickey has filed a lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court claiming that even though Royal Caribbean Cruises, LTD. (RCCL) knew about a toxic gas leak onboard the “Monarch of the Seas” that killed three and injured several crew members, RCCL endangered the lives of thousands of passengers and numerous employees by continuing to operate the unsafe vessel for several months before completing the repairs.
“Royal Caribbean engaged in gross misconduct so reckless that it constituted a conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety, or rights of every single person on that ship,” said Hickey who is representing former Staff Captain Bjoern Eidissen of Norway in legal action against RCCL. “There were indications that hazardous conditions were building on the ship for several months, even before the leak, but the company never warned passengers and staff about the presence of harmful toxic gases.
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.
“For this reason, it is essential that their ballast tanks, the vents and the connected piping be inspected, cleaned, maintained, repaired, reamed out and free of debris on a regular basis and under controlled circumstances,” said Hickey who has testified before Congress about safety and security onboard cruise ships and claims against cruise lines. “This type of maintenance can be a matter of life and death; if it is not performed on a regular basis, the resulting build up and leakage of noxious gas can be lethal to human life.”
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 crewmembers. 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 crew members.
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 Mr. 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.
Hickey has filed a motion asking the judge’s permission to request punitive damages. The bases of the punitive damages are that RCCL reportedly forced Eidissen and others to work for months in unsafe conditions and refused to provide him with timely and adequate medical treatment. As a result, a special MRI of Eidissen’s brain shows brain lesions compatible with injury from gas exposure.
“Mr. Eidissen has been diagnosed with toxic encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological disorder caused by exposure to noxious substances,” said Hickey. “His continued exposure during the next 26 cruises after the accident aggravated and contributed to his condition.”
In July 2010, RCCL filed a stipulation regarding liability in response to the allegations in Eidissen’s lawsuit. According to the document, the company states that it is liable for the release of noxious gases onboard the Monarch of the Seas. RCCL rejects the claims that it is responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries because he failed to wear safety gear and delayed his own medical care.
The hearing regarding punitive damages for Eidissen’s lawsuit will be held before Judge Marc Schumacher before the end of the year.