From earliest times ships have carried passengers. Passenger claims typically involve personal injury or death as well as loss or damage to luggage. Internationally, these matters are governed by the Athens Convention on the Carriage of Passengers by Sea. The Athens Convention limits liability of a ship-owner for each incident to about U.S. $524,000. Because of concerns to its currently low limits on liability, however, the United States has not acceded to or ratified the convention. Thus, in general, the substantive law governing suits involving passengers against cruise lines is the general maritime law of the United States, the common law rules developed by federal courts.
Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Kermarec v. Compagnie General Transantlantique, the courts have uniformly held that there is only one degree of care owed to persons lawfully aboard a vessel: “reasonable care under the circumstances.” A court may determine the precise scope of the duty by taking into account particular circumstances, such as the special needs or disabilities of a passenger, and the extent to which the circumstances surrounding maritime travel are different from those encountered in overland travel. Notably, many passenger personal injury cases involve perils that are not unique to sea going travel such as slips and falls, tripping down stairs, and food poisoning. Soon-to-be cruise line passengers should be mindful of a cruise lines legal duty. Indeed, as we get ready for summertime, there should be thousands of people around the country getting ready for cruise vacations as well. Normally, the summer months bring tons of vacationers to cruise ships for exciting travels around the world and the chance to kick back and relax. But while there should be a line of eager cruise travelers waiting outside their local ports to board a vessel and sail away toward adventure, the sound of excited cruise guests has been replaced with the sound of crickets. That’s because the idea of cruising has changed for many U.S. residents. Instead of holding a promise for fun and excitement, the idea of cruise travel has been replaced with a concept of fear and uncertainty. Uncertainly for the safety of everyone who boards a vessel.
With the increasing number of accidents that have befallen the cruise industry, starting with the Costa Concordia capsizing tragedy in January 2012 and most recently being topped off with the Royal Caribbean cruise ship fire onboard the Grandeur of the Seas, cruise travel just isn’t what it used to be. But perhaps the largest turning point in the industry was back in February, when the Carnival Triumph became disabled by a fire as well. What ensued with this accident was nothing short of appalling, even for our cruise ship lawyers, who have seen largely devastating accidents at sea.
Over 4,000 cruise guests sailing on the Triumph were left stranded smack in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico after the fire and perhaps that fact alone wouldn’t have been so bad, but it seemed as though Carnival lacked preparation for emergency maritime accidents and this misstep gave way to what could possibly be the most deplorable shipboard experience ever reported.
Because the Triumph lacked backup generators, the fire was able to knock out power on the entire vessel, leaving passengers to suffer without air conditioning, working toilets and with little to eat aside from plain cucumber sandwiches. This was the experience the Triumph cruise passengers were left with. Instead of a tropical vacation in the Caribbean ,what they got was five days onboard a toxic, unsanitary cruise ship that posed health risks for everyone – including crew members.
After the media got wind of the Triumph debacle, word of the cruise ship accident began to spread like wildfire and it began to become obvious that cruise travel wasn’t as safe as many people imagined.
Sure, the Triumph wasn’t the first cruise ship to experience a fire, but what made this particular accident stand out was the fact that Carnival officials did little to help victims in their time of need. Instead of having the disabled vessel towed to the port of Progreso, Mexico, which was much closer to the area where the Triumph had been left stranded, officials decided to tow the vessel hundreds of miles farther to the port of Mobile, Alabama. In a recently filed Federal Court lawsuit, it was alleged that Carnival took this unusual step in order to save money As alleged by the named Plaintiffs, instead of transporting passengers to the nearest port, Carnival forced 4,000 passengers to endure several days of terrifying unsanitary conditions and shortages of food, in order to tow the ship directly to the shipyard in Alabama where it was ultimately fixed. ,
Then, in even more shocking news, Carnival stated it was only going to give passengers a refund, future cruise credit and $500 for their troubles. This was the tipping point for many cruise travelers – even those who were not onboard the Triumph. Cruise lovers began to see the industry in a much different light and while the industry still remains a multibillion-dollar empire, a significant dent has been placed in its once family-friendly and safe image.
Just days following the Triumph fire, a Harris poll surveying 2,230 U.S. adults revealed that the nation’s trust in cruise lines – namely Carnival – dropped significantly. Trust in Carnival dropped 17% and a whopping 58% of surveyors who had never been on a cruise ship before said they were much less likely to go on one now than they were a year before.
Then a few weeks ago, our cruise lawyers wrote about a second Harris poll surveying U.S. adults in May, which showed the nation’s trust in cruise lines fell another 5% in the months following the Triumph accident.
The cruise industry has been known to bounce back from tragedy, but it doesn’t seem to be springing back as quickly as it used to – and it probably has something to do with the fact that the number of cruise ship accidents are increasing by the week.
Right after the Triumph fire, it was reported that several other Carnival Cruise Line ships were plagued with mechanical problems, including the Elation, Legend, Dream and Ecstasy. These additional accidents, demonstrate the sheer lack of safety on cruise ships. And now, yet another survey has revealed the public still hasn’t warmed up to cruise travel in the months following these accidents and cruise lines haven’t done much in the way of preventing accidents either.
According to a new Cruise Line Satisfaction Report released last week by JD Power and Associates, nearly one out of every five cruise passengers reported experiencing some kind of problem on their vacation. Passengers were asked to report on their experience based on specific areas including the embarkation and disembarkation process, crew member services and costs. A total of 18% percent of those surveyed admitted to experiencing at least one problem on their cruise, showing major implications for the future of cruise travel.
The study also ranked different major cruise lines in terms of passenger satisfaction ratings and found that Disney Cruise Line lead the way with the most satisfied travelers, followed by Royal Caribbean and Holland America.
Royal continues to be a fan favorite, most likely because of the way the company handles maritime accidents when they do occur. When compared with the way Carnival handled the fire on the Triumph, Royal took immediate action to get passengers to safety following the Grandeur of the Seas fire and quickly arranged for everyone to be flown back home. Royal Caribbean did not make passengers wait five days or try to cut corners in costs the way Carnival reportedly did in the Triumph incident.
The results are in and cruise guests are unsatisfied. So what’s next for major cruise lines? An overhaul of ships to improve safety features? Further reductions in itinerary prices? Better incentives for travelers?
It’s been months since the Carnival Triumph fire and while the cruise company claimed it would be investing millions on a safety improvement project fleet-wide, we have yet to see any results. Hopefully the company will keep its promises and take serious measures to improve safety for future guests before the industry sinks along with its passengers’ opinions of cruise travel.