Is it Just Us, or Does it Seem Like Every Week There’s a Major Cruise Disaster?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

It seems like every week there’s a major cruise disaster. Between the Carnival Triumph cruise ship fire, allegations of rape onboard the Grand Princess and the Hurtigruten Cruises Kong Harald running aground in Norway, the cruise industry just can’t seem to get it together. But even in the wake of these maritime mishaps, cruise companies appear to be doing absolutely nothing to improve shipboard safety and sanitation. Just yesterday, another incident on the high seas has further shown that the industry is severely lacking adequate regulations to keep passengers – and crewmembers – safe and healthy.

While Carnival Corp. has been stealing the spotlight lately when it comes to cruise ship safety incompetence, a Royal Caribbean vessel made headlines Friday after returning to port with over 100 passengers sick with Norovirus.

The Vision of the Seas returned to Port Everglades yesterday with 1,991 guests and 772 crew members onboard following an 11-night Caribbean cruise to Basseterre, St. Kitts; Roseau, Dominica; Bridgetown, Barbados; St. George’s, Grenada; Kraledijk, Bonaire; and Oranjestad, Aruba. Unfortunately, several passengers – and crewmembers – brought something back home with them to remember their trip – and it wasn’t a souvenir. According to reports, a startling 105 passengers and three crewmembers fell ill with the infamous cruise ship stomach bug known as Norovirus.

Norovirus is a type of gastrointestinal virus that leads to symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. It is extremely contagious, and spreads easily onboard cruise ships due to the confined spaces and large crowds. The virus can be passed on from person to person by eating food or drinking liquids that have been contaminated by infected persons, touching contaminated surfaces or having direct contact with another infected individual. Although Norovirus symptoms typically only last between one to three days, if victims do not stay properly hydrated, complications may arise that may even lead to death.

Although cruise ship sanitation has always been a hot topic of debate among leaders in the maritime community, the Carnival Triumph debacle showed the public just how inadequate safety and sanitation standards are across fleets. After the Triumph lost power following a fire in the vessel’s engine room, the ship was left with about a handful of working toilets and passengers were told to defecate in plastic bags. Before long, sewage and waste began to overflow across decks, creating a breeding grounds for diseases much worse than Norovirus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), runs a special Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP), in which the organization randomly inspects cruise ships to determine their protocols regarding sanitation and crewmember hygiene in order to control the transmission and spread of gastrointestinal diseases and other illnesses. Any cruise ship that carries 13 or more passengers and features a foreign itinerary with U.S. ports is subject to the unannounced inspections.

After the inspection is complete, the CDC will grade the vessel on a 100-point scale. If the ship scores a grade of 85 or lower, it will fail the inspection. Once a ship fails, it will be issued a fine and will be subject to re-inspection within a reasonable time period. However, if the CDC finds conditions onboard a ship to pose an immediate public health risk, they will order the ship to remain at port and cancel sailings until the issue has been addressed and corrected.

While the CDC offers tips on how to reduce the spread of disease and maintain a clean and safe environment onboard cruise ships, it seems as though the industry has completely ignored the organization’s suggestions, failing to improve safety standards onboard vessels.

Maritime law requires that cruise ship companies provide a safe environment for all passengers and crewmembers, and when that safety is compromised and people become injured or extremely ill, not only are the ship’s operators responsible for providing onboard medical assistance to the victims, or transporting them to the nearest medical facility for care, but if they fail to do so, may be found at least partially to blame for the victim’s injuries or subsequent health complications. At this point, victims may consult with an experienced cruise ship lawyer to discuss their options in filing a suit against the line for negligence, and may be eligible to receive compensation for their pain and suffering.

Although Royal Caribbean has maintained a pretty good track record when it comes to VSP inspections, two of its vessels have received failing scores in the past: The Majesty of the Seas, on Feb. 16, 1997 scored an 85, and the Monarch of the Seas failed twice – once on Sept. 21, 1996, receiving a failing score of 85, and the second time on Nov. 18, 2011, scoring an 82.

When Norovirus breaks out on a ship, operators must provide medication to passengers and crewmembers who become ill, must begin sanitation efforts immediately and may even quarantine contaminated areas to prevent the further spread of the illness. According to Royal Caribbean International, medication was given to those who were sick and the vessel returned to port on schedule, and issued the following statement to ABC News:

“At Royal Caribbean International, we have high health standards for all our guests and crew. During the sailing, we conduct enhanced cleaning on board the ship to help prevent the spread of the illness. Additionally, when Vision of the Seas arrived to Port Everglades, Fla., today, we conducted an extensive and thorough sanitizing onboard the ship and within the cruise terminal to help prevent any illness from affecting the subsequent sailing.”

Vision of the Seas was scheduled to depart on its next voyage late Friday afternoon, and while it can take some time to thoroughly sanitize a ship, the line proceeded according to schedule, claiming it would “conduct enhanced sanitizing onboard the ship and within the terminal to help prevent any illness…”

We’ll find out next week if any passengers on the March 8 Vision of the Seas sailing came down with Norovirus as well, and if so, Royal Caribbean may face the wrath of the CDC – and other maritime regulation organizations – for failing to provide a safe and sanitary environment for passengers and crewmembers.