Is the Cruise Ship Accident Rate Really Increasing? (Part 1)

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Increase in cruise ship accident rateThese days, it’s hard to turn on the TV or read a newspaper without hearing about a tragic accident involving a cruise ship. Whether it’s a mechanical issue or Norovirus outbreak, cruise lines seem to be constantly plagued with issues related to maritime safety – or as it would appear, a lack thereof.  As any maritime attorney at our firm can tell you, the cruise industry has never been 100 percent accident free, but it’s hard to ignore the surge of incidents that have been occurring in recent years.

But what exactly is contributing to all these accidents at sea? One would think that with all the technological advances that have been made in the past few decades, accidents involving cruise ships would be few and far between. At the very least, if an accident were to occur, it should be something so minor that guests on board the vessel shouldn’t even notice.

Maybe we aren’t asking the right question. Perhaps it’s not so much the fact that the cruise ship accident rate is increasing, but instead, the fact that the public is hearing about incidents a lot more these days.

For many years, the cruise industry was able to hide many accidents and crimes that occurred on ships and failed to disclose this information to the public. Though cruise lines are required by maritime law to report serious crimes to agencies such as the FBI, Coast Guard and other authorities, many chose not to because of the fact that the cruise industry has never been under the control of a maritime safety organization.

Since most cruise lines are registered in foreign ports and fly foreign flags, they have been able to get away with underreporting accidents and crimes for a long time. The laws of these foreign countries are also much more lax, which means that if the cruise line was found guilty of negligence in failing to provide a safe shipboard environment, the cruise line would be subject to much lesser penalties than it would here in the US.

Additionally, cruise lines know that if an accident does happen on board a ship, the process the victim must undergo to file a report and (hopefully) obtain compensation if the incident was the result of negligence on the cruise line’s part, takes a very long time. If the accident is minor, the victim is more likely to drop the matter than continue fighting tooth and nail with the cruise line. Some matters are never fully resolved, and if the incident did not result in serious injuries, it’s likely the victim will get tired of fighting and accept their losses.

If an accident does occur resulting from cruise line negligence, the line is also more likely to try to settle out of court to avoid media coverage. Once the media gets word of an accident, news will spread like wildfire and future cruisers will be less likely to trust the line to provide them with a safe shipboard environment. So the lines will do everything in their power to settle quickly and quietly, and oftentimes, cruise lines will tack on a stipulation with the settlement that mandates the plaintiff must keep all matters confidential.

So bottom line, accidents have been happening within the cruise industry since the first ship set sail over 100 years ago, but due to the so called “flags of convenience”, the fact that the cruise industry is a powerful, multibillion-dollar company and can intimidate victims into keeping quiet, and many other factors, the number of accidents that did make it to the media were few and far between.

But this all started to change about two years ago. One accident was so monumental, so tragic, it radically changed the dynamic within the cruise industry and propagated investigations into the negligent practices of cruise lines. This one accident truly created a snowball effect, and ultimately led to the revelation that cruise lines were in fact hiding information and underreporting accident and crime rates to the public, leading many to think for years that the cruise industry was a lot safer than what it really is. This accident was the Costa Concordia capsizing in January, 2012.

In Part 2 of our blog, we’ll discuss how this one cruise ship accident drastically changed the face of the cruise industry.