Royal Caribbean International may be on the hook for $20.3 million after losing a case against a former employee who suffered a catastrophic injury in 2008 while she was working on board.
In August 2008, New Zealander Lisa Spearman was a marketing and revenue manager on the Miami-based cruise line's Voyager of the Seas, which was sailing from Barcelona, Spain.
While in port, the ship was conducting a routine fire safety drill in which some of the vessel's semi-water tight doors — powerful doors that prevent water from flooding the ship — are closed, according to Deborah Gander, Spearman's attorney. A nurse from the port who was unaware of the drill tried to open one of the doors with a handle. Spearman was on the other side.
As the nurse tried to pass through the door, she fell, according to the suit, and Spearman lunged forward to help her. When Spearman put her hand on the handle to keep the door open, the sliding door lurched back into its recess pocket in the wall, mashing Spearman's hand into a space only big enough to fit a pencil.
As bystanders called the ship's bridge to disable the doors, Spearman's hand was sucked into the door's pocket three more times, Gander said. The nurse was unharmed, but Spearman broke her middle finger and her index finger. The nails on both fingers were ripped from their cuticles.
Gander argued before a jury last month that Royal Caribbean was negligent in its training to staff. Crew were not trained to operate the type of door that crushed Spearman's hand, and the nurse was not told by crew at the port that a security drill was taking place.
The incident was not unprecedented: in the three years prior to the 2008 incident, 12 Royal Caribbean crew members suffered hand injuries when the doors slid back into their pockets, according to information Royal Caribbean provided during discovery in the case.
Following Spearman's injury, Royal Caribbean referred her to a doctor in Barcelona who misdiagnosed her condition and splinted her fingers in the wrong position, further worsening the damage. For two years, Spearman underwent therapy in her native New Zealand while Royal Caribbean paid her a daily disability payment of $25, as stipulated in her employee disability insurance coverage.
Spearman was later diagnosed with a chronic pain syndrome associated with a nervous system malfunction. It causes severe pain that runs into her other arm and up to her head, Gander said. Spearman also suffered from post traumatic stress disorder following the accident. She is unable to properly move the fingers on her right hand.
By 2010, Royal Caribbean discharged Spearman, citing that though her job on the ship was clerical, because of her injury, Spearman would not be able to perform the necessary safety tasks that require lifting 50 pounds.
Spearman sued in 2016. As part of the lawsuit, filed in judicial court in Miami-Dade County, Spearman alleged that Royal Caribbean was negligent with regard to the door, failed to provide proper medical care, discharged her for a non-performance-related reason, breached its contract with her and failed to pay her full wages.
The three-week jury trial ended Friday after the jury found Royal Caribbean at fault. The court ordered the cruise line to pay Spearman $20.3 million in damages, lost wages. and future medical expenses.
"We hope this case will bring awareness and lead to substantial safety changes aboard cruise ships so that injuries like Lisa's, and those of the twelve other crewmembers, can be avoided," Gander, of Coral Gables-based Colson Hicks Eidson, said in a statement.
Royal Caribbean said it "respectfully disagrees" with the outcome of the case.
"We are considering our legal options, and we intend to appeal the decision," the cruise line said.