One year after the Carnival Triumph cruise ship caught fire and lost power in the Gulf of Mexico, stranding frightened passengers in filth and misery for days, thinking about the ill-fated voyage can make Kimberly Northom Townsend break down and cry.
That's what happened in the middle of her testimony before a U.S. federal judge in Miami last week, during the first civil trial about the February 2013 voyage.
Townsend, a 54-year-old mother of two and grandmother of three, was one of 31 passengers who are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Carnival, alleging the company's responsibility for the ill-fated voyage.
She had just finished testifying in graphic detail what it was like on the ship as it sat disabled for days in the Gulf. Terrified passengers huddled on decks worried about their safety, she said, with foul toilets overflowing into hallways, no power, near-total darkness, long lines for rationed water and almost no food.
Townsend described how she finally reached her mother on the phone when the broken ship got towed into Mobile, Ala., days late from what was supposed to have been the vacation of a lifetime. She told the court she begged her mother to come get her immediately. And as she spoke, her voice trailed away, she looked down, and began sobbing in the witness chair.
Townsend was one of numerous Carnival Triumph passengers who testified, sometimes crying, about the conditions on the boat and how they still suffer one year later.
Who got injured and how much is it worth?
The trial is expected to continue for several weeks, with lawyers for passengers suing Carnival Corp. and lawyers for the cruise line arguing over whether, and to what degree, passengers got injured, if they remain hurt and how much Carnival should pay for those damages.
But while testimony has finished only its first week, the legal case has already brought some unusual and significant rulings from the judge, U.S. District Judge Donald Graham.
Before testimony began, Graham ruled Carnival is liable and responsible for the fire on board the Triumph because of negligence on the part of the company. The judge agreed with the plaintiffs, who argued a presumption of liability based upon an older common law idea of negligence. Going back to the Romans, the Latin doctrine of "res ipsa loquitur" means roughly "the thing speaks for itself."
The judge's ruling is sweeping and unusual in a major cruise ship disaster, with larger possible implications for future cruises and passengers.
"The Court finds that the record evidence demonstrates that the fire and resulting conditions experienced by Plaintiffs aboard the Triumph is a mishap that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence," wrote Graham. "It is highly likely that Carnival was responsible for a reasonably probable causes to which the accident could have be (sic) attributed. Here, the facts of the occurrence warrant the inference of negligence."
Passengers not promised a safe voyage
But Graham also ruled that the company did not breach its contract with passengers, agreeing with Carnival's argument that when passengers bought a ticket, they were never promised a safe voyage at all, which may come as a big surprise to future cruise passengers.
"The contract ticket makes no express guarantee for safe passage, a seaworthy vessel, adequate and wholesome food, and sanitary and safe living conditions," wrote Graham. The ruling reflects the little protections afforded to passengers as currently written by many cruise ship companies.
Graham also ruled that Carnival does not have to pay punitive damages to plaintiffs who say they were hurt and are seeking financial compensation.
"Carnival contends that there is no evidence of intentional wrongdoing," Graham wrote. "Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate and the record evidence does not support a finding of intentional misconduct."
Next on the agenda: Graham must determine which passengers were injured, how much Carnival must pay for those injuries and how long the company must pay. Testimony from passengers is expected to continue for at least another week.
Many passengers have already testified to injuries they sustained during the cruise, though few are physical in nature.
'I got mentally injured'