Increasing Cruise Industry Frustrations Extend Even to Polar Bears

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

polar bearOur cruise lawyers have been watching as the number of industry accidents have been increasing at an alarming rate over the past few years. Starting with the Costa Concordia disaster in January 2012 and leading up to the most recent cruise ship fire on Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas, a staggering number of accidents, injuries, fatalities, and crimes on the high seas have been reported, leading many to wonder if cruise travel is even safe anymore.

We cannot recall another time when incidents disabling cruise ships and affecting all passengers (as opposed to just a few passengers) at a time has been more frequent.  Recently, we had reported that it is our belief that the trend in a rising number of these incidents correlate with a degradation in the working conditions for the crew.  This degradation in working conditions, we believe correlates to the recent trend by the courts in enforcing foreign arbitration clauses in crew contracts which deprives crew from enforcing their rights in US courts which historically served as a watchdog over the rights of crew members working aboard cruise ships.  Now, we believe the cruise industry feels empowered to act with impunity in disenfranchising the working rights of the crew –leading to overworking the crew and subjecting them to poor conditions – and ultimately resulting in putting the safety of the passengers at risk!

The past two years have seen an uncharacteristically high rate of accidents both shipboard and in port, causing the nation’s opinion of cruise lines to deteriorate. Following this year’s major accident at sea, the Carnival Triumph fire in February which knocked out all power on the vessel and left over 3,000 passengers amidst horrific unsanitary conditions, a Harris poll demonstrated that America’s trust in cruise lines significantly dropped by 17%.

Throughout the years, cruise lines have done a fairly good job at concealing accidents and crimes on their respective vessels due to the many loopholes in their passenger ticket contracts protecting them from liability for accidents and acts of negligence, as well as the fact that most lines register their ships in foreign ports and are able to divert accident and crime investigations to foreign governments, avoiding the more serious consequences of breaching U.S. maritime laws.

However, since the Costa Concordia capsizing tragedy last year, the media has been doing a much better job at broadcasting maritime accidents and crimes and an increasing number of victims are publicly sharing their personal stories as well.

Although the Triumph accident certainly wasn’t the first cruise ship fire incident in history, it was certainly one of the most highly publicized. Aside from the fact that the vessel lacked emergency backup generators, which would have prevented the dire conditions suffered when the ship lost power, it wasn’t so much the fact that the fire actually occurred that made this particular incident stand out, as much as the fact that Carnival seemed to do absolutely nothing to help those onboard the Triumph in the wake of the accident.

Cruise lines have usually bounced back fairly quickly after accidents, but because the Triumph fire gave the nation a peak into what really goes on in the cruise industry, with operators neglecting to respond to the needs of their passengers and failing to provide a safe environment on their ships overall, cruise companies didn’t get a free pass this time.

In the past, had a fire broken out on a cruise ship and the damage contained quickly, the incident would have blown over within a few days. This time though, the nation’s opinion of the cruise industry – and Carnival in particular – has continued to decline. Another Harris poll taken three months after the Triumph accident revealed that the nation’s opinion of cruise lines dropped another 5%.

Cruise lines can no longer hide crimes and accidents from the public and it’s become apparent to the public that safety doesn’t seem to be a particular concern for industry leaders.

Even animals appear to be taking note of the increasing rate of cruise ship accidents and are demonstrating their own frustrations of the industry as well.

A recent video captured a polar bear trying to push away a cruise ship that invaded its personal space. The M/S Expedition cruise ship, which was sailing around an archipelago in the arctic circle between Norway and the North Pole, came into the polar bear’s territory, which the cub didn’t like one bit. The footage showed the polar bear pushing the cruise ship and then standing on its hind legs in a display of dominancy as if to say, “You don’t belong here, get out of my home.”

The cub was just one of around 3,000 endangered polar bears who inhabit the remote arctic region.  Naturally, the bear was defending his territory against the foreign intruder and with good reason. Although he may not know about the numerous cruise ship accidents that have occurred in the past few years, the cub certainly recognized that the vessel did not belong in his natural habitat.

This brings us to another cruise industry issue frustrating many individuals – the destruction to natural ecosystems that cruise lines can cause.

The polar bear’s actions were similar to those of environmentalists and residents in Charleston, South Carolina, who are currently in the midst of a legal battle with – of all cruise lines – Carnival and city port authorities over their belief that the presence of cruise ships in the city is causing harm to the environment. Several organizations have accused the “Fun Ship” liner of committing numerous environmental safety law violations, including South Carolina’s Pollution Control Act.

A similar issue has also been facing Italy for several months, with residents and environmental activists protesting the presence of large cruise ships in Venice. Environmentalists and members of the community have argued that cruise ships are destroying the lagoon city’s fragile structure and polluting its waters.

Issues have also surrounded the cruise industry regarding the improper release of wastewater into the ocean. Strict maritime regulations such as the Clean Water Act regulate cruise ship wastewater emissions to protect marine ecosystems from harm, yet many lines violate these laws continually. Wastewater contains harsh chemicals, including copper, ammonia, nickel, and zinc, which can be toxic to marine mammals, fish and plants.

Princess Cruises (a subsidiary of Carnival Corp.) was fined $20,000 after dumping wastewater into the notoriously pristine waters of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska in May 2011. But while legislators should be working hard to impose higher penalties on cruise lines for environmental violations, a recent bill approved in Alaska actually reduces cruise ship wastewater regulations.

Accidents, crimes and pollution have all contributed to the nation’s declining opinion of the cruise industry, but despite the many incidents that have transpired, and those which will undoubtedly occur in the future, it’s important for victims not to give up and allow the negligent actions of cruise companies to violate their rights. Anyone who has been involved in an accident or crime on a ship or in port has the right to seek legal help with a cruise lawyer in order to obtain justice for their pain and suffering.