Cruise Ship Law Blog
Getting Answers From Cruise Operators: An Uphill BattleFebruary 22, 2013
If you were given a choice between having to learn 10 languages in one month or asking a cruise company to give you an accurate report of accidents that have taken place onboard their fleet, you are probably better off getting your foreign language dictionary handy.
The struggle to obtain information from cruise lines following an accident on the high seas is certainly an uphill battle. Not only are there times in which companies fail to dish out all the details of a mishap onboard their vessels, but even worse, there are instances in which the company completely fails to offer any sort of explanation or fails to report the accident or crime altogether.
If one of your loved ones was injured on a cruise ship or disappeared from a vessel, getting answers straight from the cruise company is not something you should ever expect. Liners keep all their matters private, especially the nitty gritty, ugly details, as much as possible. Granted, there are accidents that make such an impact that there is no way to cover them up, like the recent fire onboard the Carnival Triumph that led more than 4,000 passengers and crewmembers to endure five days at sea enduring horrid conditions akin to a floating toilet with sewage and waste sloshing all over the vessel. But even with a globally reported cruise accident, the truth is often illusive, if not, an illusion altogether.
One reason for this discrepancy in determining fact from fiction when it comes to a cruise ship accident is because victims, loved ones and general inquiring minds have to go through several avenues in order to obtain any semblance of real information. There isn’t just one specific authority that oversees cruise ships or regulates their policies or workers. In fact, there are usually at least three different countries that are involved in the operations and subsequent investigations of a cruise line accident.
First you have the country where the cruise line is based, then you have the country where the cruise line is registered and finally you have the country where a ship is flagged. Sometimes the vessel might fly the flag of the country it is registered in, but in the case of the Carnival Triumph, the ship’s operator, Carnival Cruise Lines, is based in Miami, Florida, incorporated in Panama, and the vessel flies a Bahamian flag. This cocktail of countries is enough to have anyone’s head spinning.
When an accident does take place onboard a cruise vessel, the first thing the ship’s operators should do is contact the Coast Guard, as well as return to the scene of the accident if the incident involves a passenger or crewmember disappearance. However, when it comes to actually investigating an accident, the primary authority will be the country whose flag the vessel flies. This can prove extremely frustrating, especially because foreign governments are not usually keen on divulging information regarding their cases.
As we speak, the Bahamas Maritime Authority is looking into the Triumph fire, with the help of the Coast Guard and the US National Transportation Safety Board. Unfortunately, here in the U.S., we aren’t getting any more answers than what was already revealed by the Coast Guard.
According to a preliminary investigation by the Coast Guard, the Carnival Triumph cruise ship fire was caused by a fuel leak. It appears as though leak came from a fuel oil return line, but that’s about all the information we have so far.
What we do know is that the Triumph had been experiencing some mechanical issues before the ill-fated Feb. 7 voyage.
Debbi Smedley, a Triumph passenger who was scheduled to sail on from the ship’s homeport in Galveston, TX on Jan. 28, explained she received an email from Carnival Cruise Lines just hours before the vessel’s scheduled departure, saying there would be a delay due to a propulsion problem. Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen acknowledged the Triumph’s recent mechanical mishaps, attributing the previous voyage’s delay to an electrical problem with the ship’s alternator. Although Gulliksen contends the repairs were completed by Feb. 2, questions still remain as to whether the Triumph’s prior mechanical issues were somehow related to the recent fire.
Most often, real answers about an incident aren’t obtained until well after a lawsuit is filed and a judge has forced the cruise line to provide those answers. In every lawsuit, there is a period of discovery where lawyers propound written questions (called interrogatories) and requests for documents to the cruise line. Usually, the cruise line will object to a majority of those questions and requests; however, those objections are then able to be ruled upon by the presiding judge. Cruise lines are notorious for trying to invoke legal privileges over important information relating to an incident. For example, even though a cruise line has no independent investigatory authority aboard their ship to investigate incidents after they occur, when the cruise line does its ‘investigation’ into the incident while the ship is at sea – it will almost certainly assert a “work product” privilege over those investigative reports it generates. The cruise line will argue that its investigation is conducted solely in anticipation of litigation over the incident and, thus, its investigative reports are protected from having to be produced to anybody. An experienced maritime lawyer may be able to rebut the cruise lines’ arguments to obtain those reports, however.
Sometimes prospective passengers can obtain recent information about a ship’s safety record before setting sail; however, it’s not an easy process. A vessel’s sanitation record can be found online at the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) main site, under the organization’s Vessel Sanitation Program, but as far as actual accident reports go – especially disappearances – the truth, not unlike the Triumph itself, floats aimlessly in the middle of nowhere, far from the reach of the public eye.
Top Left: Carnival Triumph Fire – ABC News
Middle Right: Carnival Triumph Towed by Tug Boats – cbs12.com
Bottom Left: Gerry Cahill, Carnival President & CEO – trust.org