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LA Court Dismisses Cases Alleging Fear of Exposure to COVID-19 Aboard Ship

July 17, 2020

Author: B. Otis Felder

On July 14, 2020, the federal court in Los Angeles dismissed a collection of cases alleging negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) based solely on the proximity of passengers to individuals with COVID-19 and their claimed resulting fear of contracting the disease while quarantined aboard a cruise ship at the Port of Oakland earlier this year. 

The court rejected plaintiffs’ claims that they could recover for NIED based solely on their proximity and fear of contracting the disease from others with COVID-19. The court noted that if it were to adopt the plaintiffs’ position, it would run afoul of a U.S. Supreme Court decision leading “to a flood of trivial suits, and open the door to unlimited and unpredictable liability.”

The court also expressed that the risk of exposing individuals to COVID-19 is not unique to cruise ships: “quite the contrary, in fact, as restaurants, bars, churches, factories, nursing homes, prisons, and other establishments across the country continue to report COVID-19 cases,” and, as such, creating a “cruise-ship exception” was not warranted. Accordingly, the court dismissed the case with prejudice finding that plaintiff-passengers could not state a claim that they were within the zone of danger to assert a NIED claim because they must allege they either contracted the disease or exhibited symptoms of it to recover for a disease-based emotional-distress claim. 

While this case arises out of alleged fear of exposure of COVID-19 aboard ship, the application of the rule also may be considered shoreside to dismiss similar claims of fear of contracting COVID-19, depending on the test used for NIED claims in particular jurisdictions. 

For more on this decision or issues related to it, please contact Otis Felder.

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