Can Passengers Sue a Cruise Ship Owner/Operator for Personal Injury?

An overview of the complicated laws surrounding lawsuits against cruise ship owners and operators for injuries to passengers.

Cruises are a popular vacation option. But when people board a cruise vessel, they may be unaware that they are entering a murky legal area where they are afforded limited protection under the law and where their rights to sue a cruise ship company for personal injury or loss of life may be severely limited.

The Current State of Cruise Ship Law

Many of the laws protecting the safety of cruise passengers can be found in a 2010 Act referred to as the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act. This Act imposes a number of requirements related to the prevention, detection and reporting of crimes and the preservation of evidence.

According to the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the passage of the Act was spurred by a vocal victim who survived a sexual assault aboard a cruise. After the victim spoke out, congressional hearings revealed the inadequacy of current safety requirements aboard cruise ships and legislatures took steps to try to make these passenger vessels safer. Among the new requirements, for example, is a mandate that passenger doors must be equipped with a means of visual identification, such as peepholes. Passengers must also be provided with a security guide detailing how crimes can be reported to United States law enforcement, regardless of where the crimes are committed.

When a crime does occur, the Act also imposes mandates on cruise lines designed to make it easier to protect the victim and prosecute the crime. For instance, credentialed medical staff must be on board and able to assist victims who have suffered a sexual assault. Staff members must also undergo routine training on preventing, detecting and reporting crimes and preserving evidence.

However, while the Act helps make cruisers safer by preventing criminal activity, an article on The Hill reveals that it does not address disaster preparedness, nor does it address a ship captain's responsibility to his passengers in the event that a disaster occurs aboard a ship.

Various international and local laws do provide limited protection to passengers by ensuring the adequacy of safety equipment. For instance, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) mandates, among other things, that sufficient lifeboats must be provided for all passengers and that passenger ships must be subdivided into water tight compartments so that when a ship's hull is damaged, the vessel remains afloat and stable. Fire protection measures, rules for radio communication, and mandates for safe navigation are all covered as part of SOLAS as well.

To ensure that adequate safety measures are in place, the United States Coast Guard mandates that any ship picking passengers up at U.S. Ports must comply with provisions found in SOLAS. Further, cruise ships are also subject to inspection in the country in which the ships are registered.

The International Safety Management Code also provides some protection for cruise passengers by mandating that captains be qualified for service. However, the duties of a captain are left largely to ship owners to define and, while captains are expected to make decisions with respect to safety in light of their overriding authority, there are no mandates in place specifying that a captain has to stay with a ship that is going down.

Jurisdictional Challenges

One issue that exists in regard to cruise ship safety is that cruise ships often travel through areas other than the country where the company is headquartered, and often carry passengers from many different countries. This makes it difficult for plaintiffs to pursue a lawsuit against owners of ships who do business far away.

In an attempt to protect themselves from personal injury lawsuits in distant countries, many cruise companies also impose a forum selection clause mandating that all lawsuits be brought before a certain court. These types of forum selection clauses are commonly found on cruise ship tickets, and in a famous 1991 case called Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc. v. Shute, the court held that these clauses were permissible as long as they were not unreasonably burdensome to passengers.

These clauses, however, may impose significant limitations on the rights of victims who suffer personal injury or lose a loved one in an onboard accident. In the case of the January 13 Costa Concordia boat wreck off the coast of Italy, for instance, plaintiffs expressed their intent to file a class action in Miami. However, a segment on The Today Show indicated that passengers may have signed a waiver as part of a click-thru contract and thus might have to bring their claims in Italy within a limited time frame. Considering that the victims come from California and various other places in the world, traveling so far to sue the cruise operator/owner could prove challenging.

This disaster, therefore, shows the potential problems inherent in holding cruise ship companies civilly responsible for their actions, when those actions cause injury to passengers.

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