Is the U.S. Coast Guard going to be charging a fee to cover cruise ship accident rescue expenses? Not yet, but there have been rumors circulating around the nation’s capital that some big changes are going to take place regarding the cruise industry. Let’s hope our elected officials put the crew and passengers interest before those of the Cruise Line’s Lobbyists’ this time around.
The latest Carnival Triumph cruise ship fire and subsequent horrendous passenger stories have led many Washington, D.C. officials to examine policies within the industry, at least in the United States, and the Coast Guard might be the main organization that will be affected.
After the fire in the Triumph’s engine room knocked out power ship-wide, the more than 4,000 passengers and crewmembers had to endure five days worth of overflowing waste and sewage, meager food provisions and other squalid conditions until the vessel was towed to Mobile, Alabama.
Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) explained he was tired of hearing about the many cruise ship accidents and mishaps in the industry and said something must be done to improve safety onboard cruise ship vessels.
In a statement that was released while the Triumph was still adrift in the Gulf of Mexico, Rockefeller called the incident the “latest example in a long string of serious and troubling incidents involving cruise ships.”
He also indicated he might make some changes – or at least try – to the cruise ship industry before leaving the Senate in two years; changes that might benefit the Coast Guard.
“It is time that the cruise line industry — which earns more than $25 billion a year — pays for the costs they impose on the government since it’s the Coast Guard that comes to the rescue every single time something goes wrong on a cruise ship,” said Rockefeller.
Because most cruise ship companies — including Carnival — are headquartered in foreign counties, they are not subject to pay U.S. taxes and are able to evade several U.S. maritime laws, explained our cruise accident attorney Michael A. Winkleman in a recent interview on Fox. However, the industry has no problem depending on the Coast Guard and other U.S. agencies to offer assistance when they need it, without contributing any funds towards that assistance.
Aside from being able to avoid U.S. tax laws, when cruise ships are registered in foreign a country or fly another country’s flag, it is that nation’s government that will be the primary authority when it comes to investigating incidents on board and regulating that vessel. The vessel will actually be governed more by that country’s laws than those of the United States. Unfortunately for the cruising public, which is mainly comprised of U.S. residents, the maritime and safety laws in many of these countries are much more lax than of the United States.
The Carnival Triumph, for example, flies a Bahamian flag, meaning that the Bahamian maritime authority takes the lead when an accident occurs. The Bahamian government is currently leading the investigation into the Triumph cruise ship fire, but it will be several more months before the public will hear any solid facts – if ever.
Although U.S. authorities have stepped in to assist, including the Coast Guard, there is only so much they can do. The Bahamian maritime authority does not have the same resources or strict laws that the U.S. does, which is one of the issues frustrating not only Rockefeller, but many other leaders in the maritime safety community, including our cruise ship accident lawyers here at Lipcon, Margulies & Winkleman.
Even though the cruise line industry is subject to international maritime treaties and regulations, it is impossible to make an accurate count of how many times a cruise company has violated these agreements.
The Triumph is just one of many Carnival Corp. vessels that have been involved in recent accidents. In 2010, another Carnival ship, the Splendor, was also involved in a cruise ship fire, leaving over 4,500 passengers and crewmembers to endure three days at sea without air conditioning or hot water. While the conditions the Splendor’s guests and crew were subjected to where nowhere near as horrendous as those on the Triumph, a preliminary Coast Guard investigation found that the Splendor’s firefighting protocols were not what they should have been.
The Coast Guard issued a marine advisory saying that the Splendor’s firefighting instruction manual had several problems, including instructions to have certain valves “pulled” when they actually needed to be “turned” in order to operate properly. The Coast Guard also found errors in the schematics and terminology so confusing, that they had to be read and re-read and still where not be understood. For example, the following is an instruction for crewmembers putting out a fire, it tells them to proceed as follows: “Once the fire has been extinguished, make sure that the temperature has decreased before investigate the area same time is needed to wait hours.”
What is clear is that it says “wait hours.” Wait hours for what though? To investigate the actual fire? To enter the area to look for passengers and other crewmembers? To contact maritime authorities and report the incident?
The cruise industry consistently fails to provide an accurate account of accidents that take place at sea or in international ports to U.S. authorities. Even if it could be done, it would cost an arm and a leg to have maritime security agents positioned in international waters waiting to see if a cruise ship commits some form of violation and so we have to rely on them to monitor and report on themselves. Obviously this makes it very easy for them to report only what they want to.
This is not the first time Congress has felt it had to get involved. Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), along with then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), teamed up to introduce a bill that would improve safety regulations on cruise ships, increase law enforcement and accountability for vessels, and provide transparency for victims of cruise ship crimes. Passed into law in 2010, the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act requires cruise ships that dock in the United States to have higher guard rails, peepholes in each cabin door, video surveillance systems on decks, an emergency sound system, and a log of all crime and accident reports, including accounts of missing passengers and reports of cruise ship rape or sexual assault.
Matsui is working on another bill that will strengthen the 2010 law, but something must be done at the international level in order to be able to begin to provide passengers any assurances that cruise ships are abiding the current safety standards.
Top Left: Jay Rockefeller – dyn.politico.com
Middle Right: Carnival Triumph – politico.com
Bottom Left: Coast Guard responds to Carnival Splendor cruise ship fire accident – coastguard.dodlive.mil