Last August, Marilyn Jones and her husband, Robert, set out from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on an eight-day Caribbean cruise aboard the Celebrity Equinox.
The couple, of Bonifay, Fla., were just two days into the trip when Robert Jones, 79, died of a heart attack.
Celebrity Cruises presented Ms. Jones with two options, according to a federal lawsuit that she filed against the cruise line this week: disembark with her husband’s body in San Juan, P.R., or agree to have it stored in the ship’s morgue until it returned to Florida six days later.
She opted to remain with the ship. But when a funeral home worker and a Broward County sheriff’s deputy came aboard in Fort Lauderdale to retrieve Mr. Jones’s body, they discovered that it had been moved from the morgue to a cooler on a different floor, according to the lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
Having been stored at an insufficient temperature, the body had “horrifically decomposed,” the lawsuit said, preventing his family from having an open casket at his wake and funeral.
For her trauma, Ms. Jones, who had been married to her husband for 55 years, and her family are seeking a jury trial and at least $1 million in damages.
In a statement, Celebrity Cruises declined to comment, citing “the sensitivity of the alleged facts and out of respect for the family.”
The lawsuit, which was reported by Miami New Times, said members of the ship’s crew told Ms. Jones that there was a “50/50 shot” if she got off the ship in San Juan that the coroner’s office there would take possession of her husband’s body for an autopsy before releasing it to a funeral home. She was told she would have to stay in Puerto Rico with his body and make arrangements on her own to get it, and herself, back to Florida.
Assured that the Equinox was equipped to safely transport her husband’s body back to Fort Lauderdale, Ms. Jones, who was 78 at the time and suddenly traveling alone, gave the crew permission to store his body in the ship’s morgue and agreed to remain on board for the rest of the cruise, the lawsuit says.
“She was given a very difficult choice,” Thomas Carey, a lawyer representing Ms. Jones, her two daughters and three grandchildren, who are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in an interview on Friday. “She logically selected the ship’s morgue,” he said, after she was assured it had a working facility.
“At some unknown point,” he said, “somebody discovered that the refrigeration was not working.”
When the funeral home worker and the sheriff’s deputy found that Mr. Jones’s body was not in the morgue but had been moved to a beverage cooler, the lawsuit said, it was “immediately clear” that it was in the advanced stages of decomposition, the lawsuit said. The body, it said, had expanded with gas and “his skin had turned green.”
The cooler was intended for things like soda, Mr. Carey said, and was not nearly cold enough to store a human body.
Like all cruise ships, the Celebrity Equinox, which is registered in Malta and can carry up to 2,852 people, is required to have a morgue because onboard deaths are not uncommon, said Hendrik Keijer, a marine operations expert who served for 10 years as a captain on Holland America Line cruise ships.
“For some people it is their last vacation, unfortunately” Mr. Keijer said. “That’s why morgues are onboard.”
Jacob Munch, a maritime lawyer who is also representing Ms. Jones in her lawsuit, said cruise lines have an obligation to maintain the morgues.
“It’s incumbent on them to make sure they’re working properly,” he said in an interview, “especially in sensitive situations like this. She’s turning to them for advice.”
If Ms. Jones had known the ship did not have a working morgue, the lawsuit said, she would have chosen to take her husband’s body off the ship in Puerto Rico. Celebrity Cruises’ handling of the matter had been “reckless and careless,” it said.
Ms. Jones and her family are “devastated” and will struggle to heal, Mr. Carey said.
“For the rest of her life,” he said, “she’s going to have to think about this.”