Jury Orders Royal Caribbean to Pay $3.4M to Estate of Passenger who Died after Collapsing during Cruise

Explorer of the Seas
The pool deck of Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas. Passenger Richard Puchalski collapsed in his cabin during a cruise on the Explorer, and died after eventually being transferred to a hospital in Juneau, Alaska, then airlifted to a second hospital in Anchorage. Royal Caribbean

A federal jury in Miami concluded Thursday that Royal Caribbean Cruises is largely responsible for the death of a passenger who went into cardiac arrest while on board a cruise of the Alaskan coastline, and that the company must pay the large majority of the nearly $5 million in damages awarded to the passenger's estate.

In July 2016, Richard Puchalski of Kenosha, Wis., was traveling aboard Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas with his family to celebrate his 70th birthday. According to the lawsuit filed by Puchalski's estate, he visited the ship's clinic at around 10 a.m. on July 31, complaining of shortness of breath.

The ship's doctor, Amanda Saunders, ordered an EKG and diagnosed Puchalski with a "septal infarction, age undetermined," indicating that the patient had likely suffered a heart attack at some point in the past.

The Explorer was docked in Juneau at the time, but rather than have Puchalski taken offboard to be seen at a hospital, the estate says Dr. Saunders prescribed The ship's physician prescribed metoprolol, a drug used to treat several heart-related conditions including high blood pressure and chest pain. The plaintiffs say Dr. Saunders made no effort to alert Puchalski's family regarding his potentially serious condition.

Mr. Puchalski's son, Clifford, said that shortly after his father returned from the clinic, he collapsed while trying to walk to the bathroom in his cabin. The son contacted the ship's emergency number and two nurses were dispatched to the room.

After the nurses and other emergency staff were unable to revive Mr. Puchalski in his cabin, he was transported once again to the clinic, but his family says it wasn't until hours later that their patriarch was finally transferred to the Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau. From there, he was airlifted a significant distance to an intensive care unit in Anchorage.

Per the family, by the time the patient arrived in Anchorage, "his condition had deteriorated to the extent that he was not salvageable," and he ultimately passed away on Aug. 4, 2016.

The family alleged that Royal Caribbean was negligent by failing to "provide prompt and appropriate medical care" as soon as Mr. Puchalski arrived at the clinic. And this week the jury in this lawsuit agreed, finding the cruise line liable for both medical expenses and damages, totaling $4.834 million. Royal Caribbean's exact share of liability was determined to be 70 percent, leaving the company on the hook for $3.384 million.

"Until the cruise line industry makes the long-overdue, necessary changes to the standard of care, more families will suffer these life changing tragedies," said the family's attorney Michael Haggard in a statement.

Royal Caribbean has not yet responded to Newsweek's request for comment on the outcome of this case.

This jury verdict is just the latest in a long history of cruise ships being criticized for their handling of ill passengers. In February, a New Jersey couple claimed that Royal Caribbean left them behind in Mexico after the wife fell ill. The cruise company said at the time that these passengers had refused the ship staff's advice to seek offboard medical attention.

Earlier that month, a passenger aboard a Holland America cruise reportedly failed to receive adequate medical attention for 17 hours after suffering a stroke. According to the passengers, the ship's medical crew did not call the Coast Guard to request a medevac helicopter or turn back to port Fort Lauderdale but continued to travel towards the Bahamas.