California Government Introduces New Cruise Consumer Law to Protect Passenger Rights and Safety

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Life saver It has only been a few months since Senator John “Jay” Rockefeller introduced the Cruise Passenger Protection Act, which calls for cruise ship crime data to be available to the public, and some of the world’s major cruise lines have begun to cooperate, releasing their crime statistics. Among those are Carnival Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean. But is this legislation enough to protect passengers from harm?

The act may reveal the troubling circumstances onboard vessels, but it won’t necessarily prevent crimes from happening. It will certainly help travelers keep their eyes peeled for signs of danger, but the cruise industry has yet to really make a meaningful impact in its’  efforts to improve safety on the high seas and in port. This year alone, the cruise industry has faced a greater number of accidents and crimes than in past years. When Sen. Rockefeller launched the Cruise Passenger Protection Act, the industry had already faced three ship groundings, five fires, two collisions, and nineteen instances in which ships endured mechanical problems. And that was just in the first six months of the year.

Even worse, because cruise lines impose clauses in their passenger ticket contracts that limit their liability when something goes wrong – along with the fact that they register their ships in foreign countries  to avoid U.S. legislations – cruise passengers face nothing short of an uphill battle when trying to file a lawsuit against a cruise line.

Taking note of the dire situation within the cruise industry, two congress people in California decided to take matters into their own hands. Fed up with the lack of rights bestowed to cruise passengers, Congressman John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove CA), the Ranking Member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, and Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento) have introduced a bill designed to protect cruise travelers from harm and from being denied the compensation they deserve after suffering an injury or being the victim of a crime.

Known as the “Cruise Vessel Consumer Confidence Act of 2013,” or HR347, the bill, if passed, will grant authority to the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) to investigate the cruise industry and may levy up to $25,000 per instance of unfair passenger treatment or deceptive practice. Additionally, the bill will require cruise lines to disclose crime complaints, not just information about crimes that were solved, and incidents of Norovirus outbreaks and overboard passenger incidents. It will also require cruise lines to compensate passengers if their cruise is delayed for more than 24 hours.

Congressman Garamendi created the bill after he and his committee staff reviewed the poor treatment cruise passengers were being afforded on itineraries departing from U.S. ports as well as the lack of repercussions suffered by cruise lines. Many of the incidents reviewed could have been prevented, but passenger needs have been ignored for far too long.

Congressman Garamendi, an advocate of greater disclosure in the cruise industry and increased protection for travelers, explained that after examining the “many horror stories from cruise ships in recent years, it is clear that proper oversight of the industry and consumer protections for passengers are desperately lacking.”

He believes it’s time for the cruise industry to finally be held accountable for acts of negligence that compromise passenger safety. After helping introduce the Cruise Passenger Protection Act, Congressman Garamendi believes this new legislation is just another step forward in ensuring that the safety of all cruise travelers is protected.

Our attorneys here at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. couldn’t agree more. As experienced maritime lawyers, we can see the many ways in which the cruise industry attempts to avoid liable for accidents, illness outbreaks and crimes, but this information is rarely disclosed to the public. Even when cruise lines report incidents and the FBI and Coast Guard report them back to consumers, there are a number of crime and accident reports that never see the light of day. Cruise lines know they might  be held liable for these incidents, which is why they try to avoid disclosing them to maritime authorities.

There are many ways in which passenger safety is compromised on each and every cruise vacation. Even the lines with the least amount of accident reports, such as Disney Cruise Line, are involved in serious accidents and crimes.

Earlier this year, a 4-year-old boy nearly drowned in a Disney Fantasy pool. Then, surveillance footage surfaced showing that a Disney Dream crew member sexually assaulted an 11-year-old girl – and Disney failed to report the incident while the vessel was in port.

So, even the most “family friendly” of lines has a dark side. This is why it’s imperative that not only information regarding crimes and accidents be revealed to consumers so they can be more wary of their surroundings while onboard a vessel, but so the industry can take the necessary steps to improve shipboard safety in general.

There are several steps cruise lines can take to protect passengers from harm, including improving crew member training, especially when it comes to emergency situations. When the Costa Concordia capsized in January, 2012, survivors reported that the situation onboard was absolute chaos. Crew members were running around, unable to communicate with each other, and only making the situation worse for victims. Cruise lines should ensure all crew members have adequate training so that in the event an accident does occur, an evacuation will run smoothly.

Lines should also invest in overboard passenger detection technology, which is available for use right now. There are systems designed to detect when a passenger falls overboard and report these images directly to a ship’s bridge, which can cut the time it takes to find a victim in the open waters significantly. Yet, barely any cruise ships have this technology in place.

It’s shocking to see that there are several things cruise lines can do to keep passengers from harm, yet while some of these steps are so simple, lines refuse to cooperate. Why?

Perhaps it’s because cruise companies would rather not spend money on improving passenger safety features. Perhaps they would rather allocate those funds toward improving entertainment options. Or, perhaps lines just don’t want to bother maintaining these systems or spending money on crew member training.

There are a number of factors that come into play before a cruise line decides it wants to spend money. Disney Cruise Line recently made maritime history after becoming the first major cruise line to introduce lifeguards onboard its vessels. Then again, there are only four ships in the Disney fleet.

It would be in each cruise line’s best interest to start improving safety features before the accident and crime tally goes up once more. Now that U.S. congressmen are getting involved, cruise lines won’t be able to hide behind the foreign flags they fly. Hopefully the new legislation will make a difference. Unfortunately, it turns over the responsibility for policing the cruise lines to a government agency, which might not be as effective as we would like. Only time will tell, if it passes and that is a big “if”.

Check out the full details of the Cruise Cruise Vessel Consumer Confidence Act here.