Has the Cruise Industry Gotten Away with Negligence Once More?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Life saver 2There are far too many times when cruise lines are able to get away with committing acts of negligence without suffering any penalties or taking responsibility for their actions. As our cruise ship lawyers have seen time and time again, major lines, most notably Carnival Corp., have swept accidents and crimes under the proverbial rug in order to avoid liability for the incidents and the lost revenue that comes with it.  Carnival has been vastly criticized by the maritime community and attorneys over their seemingly continual and perpetual disregard for passenger and crew member rights and safety, yet hasn’t taken any significant steps to improve onboard conditions for guests and workers.

After the Triumph fire accident in February, which passengers have yet to be decently compensated for, last year’s Costa Concordia capsizing tragedy which resulted in the deaths of 32 victims, and tons of other mechanical mishaps, overboard passenger accidents, cruise ship sexual assaults, and general maritime accident-related injuries, the country is rapidly losing its faith and trust in Carnival – and other lines subsequently – as the “Fun Ship” liner continues to make mistakes and ignore the needs and rights of its client base by either failing to report incidents, diverting responsibility to the governments whose flags its ships fly, and when it comes to crew member rights, imposing foreign arbitration clauses in worker contracts to avoid having to pay a larger amount of damages than the bare minimum.

This week, a South Carolina Supreme Court judgment has further corroborated the fact that the cruise industry – and Carnival especially –  never seem to fully pay the price for their wrongdoings. The SC Supreme Court asked attorneys working on a Charleston environmental case to prepare briefs regarding two outstanding claims against Carnival Cruise Line over its operations in the state’s low country coastal region after having already dismissed three claims against the company over alleged city violations.

The complaints against Carnival were brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center in June 2011, on behalf of the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, the Coastal Conservation League, and the Preservation Society of Charleston, with the city of Charleston and State Ports Authority later joining the suit as defendants favoring the cruise line.

The problem arose when the organizations accused Carnival of violating zoning and environmental regulations in Charleston and were pushing to subject the cruise line to the same processes required of other tourism businesses in the city.  In January 2012, the Supreme Court appointed circuit judge Clifford Newman as referee in the case, who suggested the court throw out the zoning violation claim as well as a claim that Carnival violated South Carolina’s Pollution Control Act. However, Newman recommended the high court allow the groups to present their case against Carnival over the cruise line’s alleged violation of nuisance laws on pollution and noise.

On June 5, the Supreme Court took Newman’s advice, dismissing three claims pertaining to Charleston’s noise and sign ordinances and the South Carolina Pollution Control Act. The other claims were left intact and parties have now been asked to file briefs on the nuisance law violations, due next month.

The ports authority was especially content at the court’s latest decision, undoubtedly because the port benefits just as much as Carnival from the line’s presence in Charleston. However, the plaintiffs were equally satisfied with the decision because it allows the state’s environmental and preservation organizations more time to plead their case and hopefully hold Carnival to the same standards and laws other tourism agencies must follow.

Tensions between the city’s environmental groups and the cruise industry date back several years, but it wasn’t until 2010, when Carnival decided to make Charleston the permanent home port of its Fantasy cruise ship, that smaller disagreements turned into full-blown legal disputes.  The environmental organizations argue that the cruise industry should honor and protect Charleston’s historic essence by keeping overt and flashy tourism operations to a minimum. But once state officials approved a permit for the construction of $35 million cruise ship terminal in downtown Charleston last December, the organization’s plight against the cruise industry was further fueled with allegations that the increase in tourism would lead to greater pollution in the city and to the further destruction of Charleston’s quintessential town charm.

While arguments have been brought back and forth regarding environmental and historic preservation violations, no one has bothered to address the more pressing matter of port safety, especially in the wake of several Carnival Cruise Line accidents. Hopefully the best decision will be made protecting the interests of the city’s residents, but also protecting the rights of cruise ship passengers, who deserve a safe environment both onboard the vessels they are traveling in as well as in the ports they dock.