Are Cruise Ships Really Safe?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

onboard a cruise shipIt seems like every other day, we hear about a new cruise ship disaster. Whether it’s an engine malfunction, a fire, a disappearance, or a Norovirus outbreak, the past few years seem to have been wrought with a higher than average number of mishaps for the cruise industry. Ships keep getting bigger, but are they getting any safer? What are the odds that the next ship to set sail will be involved in an accident, become a crime scene or a cesspool of rapidly spreading viruses? Given the industry’s track record, the odds aren’t exactly in their favor.

So how safe are cruise ships these days? Well, if we’re talking sheer mechanics, pretty safe. The odds of a ship becoming completely and utterly disabled are actually not as high as you might imagine. These days, ships are built to withstand inclement weather conditions and mechanical issues. No, really. Just because there are ships, like say, the Carnival Triumph that become completely disabled because of a fire, doesn’t mean that this is a common occurrence. Most catastrophic accidents that involve ships breaking down or catching fire are not the result of poor design or outdated equipment, they are the result of someone – or multiple people’s – negligence.

The Triumph, for example, would probably have never caught on fire had Carnival complied with recommendations concerning repairs to the fuel hoses. Contrary to what many might think, there is A LOT of technology that can effectively prevent as well as contain a fire, if one should break out. The Triumph fire didn’t happen because the ship itself was built to be unsafe, it happened because of a series of very bad decisions. Bad decision #1: Not complying with maintenance and repair recommendations concerning the fuel hoses, including installing spray shields. Bad decision #2: Not installing backup generators. The recommended repairs and maintenance would have prevented the fire, but the fact that there were no backup generators on board to keep the power running was a gross error in judgment on the cruise line’s part. The safest piece of equipment in the world isn’t immune from experiencing a glitch. Its equipment, it can break. However, this particular fire should have never happened and would have never happened had the cruise line been more adamant about safety. So, in this regard, it’s not the ships that are unsafe, it’s the overall manner in which the cruise industry operates.

Now, let’s talk personal injury and crime. The fact that cruise lines do have security cameras in place and security guards keeping watch (or, rather, that SHOULD BE keeping watch) should reduce the number of crime incidents….right? Well, let’s review the facts. This year alone, 11 people have gone overboard from cruise ships and between January 2010 and September 2013, 156 sexual assaults were reported on ships. Mind you, these are only the incidents we know about. Cruise lines don’t always disclose the real number of accidents or crimes. As far as sexual assault goes, well, if a cruise ship crew member can use his master key to break into a passenger’s room to brutally beat and rape her, that speaks volumes about the level of safety we can expect while on board a ship. Though perhaps not every ship that sets sail sees a sexual crime or violent assault, the fact that they can and do happen is a red flag. Clearly there is lacking policy within the cruise industry to provide for adequate security aboard ship. This includes not only adequately training ship’s security but having them in sufficient numbers and utilizing surveillance technology which could assist in visualizing all areas of the ship to prevent crimes and assaults more effectively.

As far as overboard incidents are concerned, they can be accidental or they can be the result of foul play. Either way, they shouldn’t happen. Where are the security officers? Why isn’t anyone immediately reviewing footage from the surveillance cameras? Why aren’t crew members stationed on deck at all times to actually notice when an overboard accident is occurring to either stop the incident or to make sure the vessel stops immediately to rescue the victim? Why aren’t ships using man overboard technology to sound alarms when someone goes overboard?

Cruise ships have a lot of confined areas that make it easy for a crime to occur, but many happen in broad view – if there was actually a crew member keeping watch. As far as crimes and accidents go, cruise ships are not as safe as they should be. Again, not because of a lack in technology, but because of a lack of implementing the available technology and negligence in using that technology and in ensuring crew members do their job.

Lastly – a word about crew member conditions. We have seen a trend over the years to degrade crew conditions – by decreasing crew sizes in relation to passenger sizes; forcing crew to work longer hours; and failing to provide adequate medical care to crew who become ill or injured. This, we feel, translates into increased safety issues for the cruise passengers. There has been a recent trend for the U.S. courts to enforce crew arbitration clauses – depriving crew members of redress of their claims in U.S. courts. This seems to have empowered the cruise lines to cut corners when it comes to their crew. This should concern you because the crew are the backbone of the ship’s operation and safety. If they are overworked and poorly treated – you can bet that this will reflect in the overall safety of the ship.

Yes, ships can be designed to be safer. Railings can be higher in order to make it impossible for anyone to even climb over and fall overboard, cameras should be installed on balcony cabins and in greater number throughout ships. But that being said, cruise ships are not all that unsafe on their own. It’s the cruise lines’ collective failure to have security and available crew in sufficient numbers – with sufficient training and technology – to allow them to be effective in keeping passengers safe. Anyone who has sustained an accident or been the victim of a crime on board a cruise ship has the right to contact an admiralty lawyer for assistance in filing a case and protecting his rights.