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Things That Make You Go “Hmmmm” …

These are rare cases but I’ve brought the claim of tortious interference with a dead body and had to address the same kind of argument.

Celebrity Cruises Says Storing Body In Cooler Not Misconduct

Celebrity Cruises urged a Florida federal judge on Friday to toss a suit by the family of a man who died aboard one of its ships and whose body decomposed after being stored in the vessel’s ill-equipped cooler, arguing the crew did the best under the circumstances, and that it was not “willful or wanton misconduct.”

The cruise line argued in a motion to dismiss that the single claim for tortuous interference with a dead body brought by the family of Robert Jones should be dismissed for failure to state a claim because the family must suggest they either suffered a physical injury or that the cruise line acted with willful or wanton misconduct, but none of those things occurred.

“To find willful or wanton misconduct, Celebrity must have acted so outrageously and so extremely as to go beyond all bounds of decency,” the cruise line said. “Here, Celebrity’s alleged actions were, at worst, simple negligence. After realizing the morgue was broken, Celebrity moved Mr. Jones’s body to a functioning cold place on the vessel that was large enough to house him.”

“If Celebrity made a mistake in keeping him in too warm of conditions, then it was simple negligence, and negligence is insufficient to impose liability here,” the cruise line continued.

The April lawsuit filed by the widow, children and grandchildren of Jones say Celebrity improperly kept Jones’ body stored in a cooler, leaving his body in an advanced stage of decomposition by the time they pulled in to port six days later in Florida.

The plaintiffs said the crew in charge of storing his body “acted recklessly, willfully and wantonly, and without care for the Jones family’s loved one.”

Jones and his wife, Marilyn Jones, were on the Celebrity Equinox on Aug. 15, when Jones died due to a cardiac event, according to the suit.

Celebrity’s crew told Marilyn Jones that she could either have her husband’s body removed from the ship in San Juan, Puerto Rico, or keep it stored in the ship’s morgue until it reached port in Fort Lauderdale six days later, according to the suit. The widow says she was told that if she chose to have his body taken ashore in San Juan, she would have to stay with the body and make arrangements for transport for herself and her husband’s body back to Florida.

The Jones’ daughter Teresa West says she was told by Celebrity employees that if her father’s body was taken ashore in San Juan there was a good chance that the coroner’s office there would take possession of the body and there was no guarantee as to when his body would be released.

Because of this, Marilyn Jones opted to keep her husband’s body in the ship’s morgue, the lawsuit said.

But she said that when the ship docked in Fort Lauderdale on Aug. 21, an employee of a local funeral home found Robert Jones’ body in a cooler on a different floor than the ship’s morgue and in an advanced stage of decomposition. His body had expanded with gas and his skin had turned green, according to the complaint, which added that the funeral had to be closed casket as a result.

The family said Celebrity has had dozens of people die on its ships over the last two decades and is required to have a working morgue on its ships. Its workers should have known about the temperatures required to preserve dead bodies, according to the suit.

The plaintiffs said had they known there was no working morgue on the ship, they would have opted to take Jones’ body off the ship in Puerto Rico.

Jones’ family is asking for compensatory damages of $1 million, plus costs.

Celebrity Cruises argued in the motion to dismiss that although the claim was brought under maritime law, Florida law can supplement the claim because general maritime law is silent on tortuous interference with a dead body in the Eleventh Circuit. The only time it was considered in the Eleventh Circuit, in 2020’s Sexton v. Carnival Corp . in the Southern District of Florida, Florida law was applied, Celebrity Cruises said.

Florida law should apply in the instant case because the ship left and returned to port from Florida, six of the seven parties are domiciled in the state and the lawsuit was filed in Florida federal court, Celebrity Cruises said.

Under Florida law, the plaintiffs must allege a physical injury, but only argued mental injuries, or must allege willful or wanton misconduct, the cruise line said.

“There is no actionable claim for tortuous interference with a dead body when the defendant had a good-faith reason to interfere with the body without the family’s consent,” Celebrity Cruises argued.

Simple negligent mistakes are not enough for the plaintiffs’ claim, Celebrity Cruises said, and cited a number of cases involving similar claims, with some involving more “severe” allegations where the suit was dismissed.

One case was the Supreme Court of Florida’s 1995 ruling in Gonzalez v. Metro. Dade Cnty. Pub. Health Trust where the morgue sent the wrong infant’s body to a funeral home, which resulted in the parents holding a funeral and burying the wrong body. The parents brought claims for negligent mishandling of a corpse against the morgue, but the morgue won on summary judgment because there was no willful misconduct or physical injury to the plaintiffs, Celebrity Cruises said.

Moving the body to the walk-in cooler after the morgue cooler failed was done in good faith, Celebrity Cruises said.

“Mistakenly stating that the morgue cooler would be fully functional for six days is, at worst, a negligent misrepresentation,” the cruise line said. “It is not intentional misconduct, which means there can be no liability for tortuous interference with a body.”

Counsel for the parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The plaintiffs are represented by Jacob J. Munch and Catherine M. Saylor of Munch and Munch PA and Thomas W. Carey of Carey Leisure & Neal.

Celebrity Cruises is represented by Curtis Jay Mase and Thomas Dennis Alan Briggs of Mase Seitz Briggs.

The case is Jones et al. v. Celebrity Cruises Inc., case number 1:23-cv-21481, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.


The Thompson Law Firm