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Death on Ship Prompts Lawsuit

Jamie Barnett targets Carnival Cruise Lines after her daughter's onboard drug overdose.

October 13, 2006|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

Almost a year after her 24-year-old daughter died of a methadone overdose while aboard a Carnival Cruise Lines ship, Jamie Barnett is still seeking answers:

How did her fervently anti-drug daughter Ashley wind up ingesting a drug? Did a cruise ship carrying hundreds of passengers have limited medical personnel? And, on a trip filled with hundreds of partying young people, was Carnival unprepared for a medical emergency involving drugs?

"This has been any parent's worst nightmare," Barnett said in an interview at the Los Angeles offices of her attorney, Gloria Allred. "It's the thing you dread the most come to pass; sometimes I think it's this fight to get these answers, and to get the truth, that's kept me going."

Barnett filed a wrongful-death suit against Carnival Corp. in U.S. District Court in Miami on Thursday, alleging negligence by the cruise line and a violation of the Death on the High Seas Act. Also named as defendants are the doctor and nurse who treated Ashley Barnett.

The suit does not blame the cruise line for the aspiring actress' overdose; rather, it faults the company's response to her medical emergency.

Carnival, in a written statement, said the crisis was handled appropriately.

"Tragically, Ashley Barnett died of a drug overdose and was deceased well before medical assistance was summoned," the statement said. "The cruise line's medical professionals responded rapidly, appropriately and professionally and the suit is completely without merit."

Barnett is the latest to raise questions about the cruise industry's handling of crimes and suspicious incidents on the high seas.

In the past year, concerns have been raised about passengers disappearing from ships, medical emergencies and serious crimes.

Industry advocates point out that the crime rate on cruises is far lower than on land, but consumer advocates say spotty record-keeping by cruise lines makes actual statistics difficult to determine.

This much is known about Ashley Barnett's last days alive: She boarded a Carnival cruise ship with her boyfriend, Geoff Ginsburg, on Oct. 14 in Long Beach. She was about to turn 25, and the couple were celebrating her birthday.

According to the suit, at about 1:45 p.m. the next day, Ginsburg ran into the hallway screaming for help.

A nearby volunteer firefighter heard and started CPR on Ashley. Ginsburg called 911.

A nurse arrived at the cabin at approximately 2:10 p.m. Ginsburg told her that five of his Vicodin pills were missing.

The nurse called for the doctor, who was told that Ginsburg was also missing some methadone. The suit doesn't explainwhy he brought the drugs on board.

A defibrillator was turned on at about 2:31 p.m. -- 20 minutes after medical help first arrived -- and Ashley was declared dead at approximately 2:45 p.m.

Allred faulted the doctor for failing to administer anti-overdose medication, which she said should have been on hand.

Barnett, who has made six trips to Mexico in the past year, said she is haunted by the question of how her daughter overdosed in the first place.

"I think it's the most unimaginable combination of events," Barnett said. "She had a little rap song she made up, an anti-drug rap that I think she probably annoyed everybody under the sun with, she was so anti-drug."

Both the FBI and Mexican authorities -- Ashley's body was taken to Mexico, where an autopsy was performed, and then returned to the U.S. -- have opened investigations into her death.

San Francisco attorney Alexander Anolik, an expert on travel law, said the cruise industry needs stiffer regulations because when crises do occur, ships often are poorly equipped to handle them.

"The doctor scenario is this: Typically it's an independent contractor -- all the cruise lines do this so they don't have a medical malpractice situation," Anolik said. "The standard of care is not of a Cedars-Sinai doctor in the L.A. area."

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who chairs a subcommittee looking into cruise safety, has maintained that cruises are safe, but he also has proposed a bill to tighten regulation of the industry.

Among other provisions, his Cruise Line Accurate Safety Statistics Act requires ships that call at U.S. ports to report missing persons and crimes more promptly.

The bill also holds cruise owners liable for up to $250,000 if they fail to do so, and also if they have inadequate equipment and trained personnel.

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lisa.Richardson@latimes.com

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