News broke Thursday, June 25 of a tragic float plane crash near Misty Fjords National Monument, about 25 miles outside of Ketchikan, Alaska. The crash resulted in the deaths of all onboard, including eight Holland America Line passengers and the plane’s pilot.
The sightseeing airplane ride had been arranged through Holland America Line as an excursion available to cruise passengers aboard the vessel M/S WESTERDAM. At the time of the crash, the plane was on its way back from Misty Fjords National Monument, a wilderness area of lakes, waterfalls, snowcapped peaks and glacial valleys accessible only by floatplanes or boats. It has been reported that the plane crashed into a rock cliff face 800 feet above Ella Lake.
Investigators are still working to determine the cause of the crash, and the wreckage will be flown back to Ketchikan via helicopter to be reassembled and checked for mechanical problems. The company operating the excursion was Promech Air of Ketchikan, Alaska. The plane was a DeHavilland DHC-3 Otter turboprop seaplane.
It is reported that a memorial service was held aboard the M/S WESTERDAM on Friday, drawing attendance from a majority of the passengers aboard the vessel. The vessel returned to port in Seattle as scheduled on Saturday.
Where cruise passengers are injured or killed during an excursion arranged through a cruise company, the passengers and their families have the right to pursue claims against the cruise company and the operator of the excursion (if different from the cruise line). If negligence was to blame for this crash, the families of those killed are likely entitled to recover from Holland America and/or Promech Air.
Common legal issues that arise in this type of case surround the question of whether the cruise line was negligent in hiring or retaining an independent contractor to run excursions from the vessel, like the Misty Fjords National Monument sightseeing flight. In Smolnikar v. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., 87 F. Supp. 2d 1308, 1320 (S.D. Fla. 2011), the district court identified the “salient inquiry” as whether the cruise company “failed to ‘diligently inquire’ into [the excursion contractor]’s initial or ongoing suitability to operate” an excursion tour.
Other legal issues faced in a case like this concern where a lawsuit may be filed. The Holland America ticket contract requires passengers to notify the company of claims within six months and to file a lawsuit within one year in the Western District of Washington. This is called a “forum selection clause” or “venue selection clause” and has been held enforceable by the courts. That means that in order to make a legal claim against Holland America related to injuries or deaths to passengers, claimants must retain a lawyer licensed to practice in federal court in Washington.
However, where the excursion operator is located elsewhere and may not have “minimum contacts” with Washington, it may not be possible to obtain jurisdiction in Washington over the company operating the excursion, and another claim may need to be filed where the excursion operator is located. Using this plane crash as an example, a claim against Holland America would have to be filed in Seattle, but it is possible that a separate claim would have to be filed against Promech Air in Alaska rather than along with the claim against Holland America filed in Seattle. Our attorneys have experience handling these types of cases, and we have lawyers licensed in both Washington and Alaska.
Although making a claim against the company will never bring back those who were lost, often times a wrongful death claim helps provide a feeling of closure and justice for the families of those killed. In addition, the litigation process requires the company to turn over all relevant documents in what is called “discovery,” and the discovery process can be incredibly helpful in determining what truly went wrong, and help to take away the shroud of mystery that often surrounds such tragedies.
For more information about the process for making a claim against Holland America or any of its excursion operators, call and speak to one of our lawyers today at (206) 624-8844.