New Government Bill Threatens to Limit Foreign Crew Member Rights and Their Ability to File Personal Injury Lawsuits

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

SeamanCruise lines have been plagued with accidents and crimes recently – more so than ever before. But while many of the victims have been passengers, cruise ship crew members can also be involved in accidents at sea.  Unfortunately, as difficult as it can often be for passengers to obtain compensation for injuries sustained onboard a cruise ship – even for injuries sustained due to the line’s own negligence in providing a safe environment – it can be even harder for a crew member to file a seafarer personal injury claim to recover compensation.

Not only cruise lines, but nearly all maritime industries hire foreign workers for labor positions and often limit their pay, their benefits and their right to file personal injury lawsuits in the event of a workplace accident. Although seafarers are entitled to benefits, including food and shelter, medical care, lost wages, and more, the grim reality is that seamen are subjected to mistreatment, and are often overworked and underpaid, and when they attempt to seek legal help, they are denied their wages, reimbursement for medical costs, disability benefits, and other types of compensation for their pain and suffering.

This happens time after time onboard cruise ships, cargo vessels and even fishing boat companies, but onboard cruise ships more so than others. Because most cruise ships fly foreign flags, they are not usually subject to U.S. maritime laws, which are much stricter than those of the countries whose flags they fly. Thus, the lines can get away with docking wages, denying benefits or enacting foreign arbitration clauses within their employee contracts to limit a seafarer’s rights.

The U.S. government is beginning to play a larger role in regulating the industry’s policies, which will hopefully reduce or perhaps even eliminate this problem. But while our maritime lawyers here at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. have been all for increased regulation within the cruising industry, a new legislation actually threatens to further decrease the rights of foreign cruise ship crew members.

HR 4005, known as the Coast Guard Reauthorization Bill is poised to modernize maritime policy, so they say. What it actually threatens to do is prevent foreign cruise ship crew members from being able to file lawsuits in the United States for compensation following a personal injury or denial of medical benefits, even if the maritime company in question is headquartered here in the United States.

The purpose of HR 4005 is to actually benefit the Coast Guard’s American mariners, which isn’t a negative thing. But in helping our mariners, foreign crew members are suffering. There shouldn’t have to be a tradeoff. All seafarers, foreign-born or not, should be entitled to the same rights as specified under the Jones Act, Seafarer’s Bill of Rights, Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Act, and several others.

Yet, the bill threatens to weaken longstanding seafarer protections and restrict foreign seafarers from filing claims seeking “maintenance and cure” for damages or expenses related to personal injury, illness, or even wrongful death. This is a blatant violation of longstanding maritime laws. Additionally, it would arbitrarily cap the amount that cruise ships would have to pay in penalty wages when they purposefully withhold a seafarer’s wages.

During a meeting of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last month, Subcommittee Ranking Member Congressman John Garamendi (D-Fairfield, CA), stood up for the rights of foreign cruise ship crew members, arguing that the sections of the legislation that limit foreign crew member rights, Sections 307 and 308, are offensive not only to foreign seamen, but for all seafarers around the world.

“These two sections [of the bill] are an affront to seafarers everywhere, both here in the U.S. and abroad. By denying established legal rights to foreign seafarers, Section 307 would encourage ships to hire these workers,” said Garamendi. “Section 308 would remove a basic protection for American mariners: a guarantee that they will be paid for their work.”

Not surprisingly, the committee failed to adopt the amendment measures Garamendi was advocating for, but the Ranking Member isn’t giving up that easily. The bill, introduced on February 6, has only a 54 percent likelihood of being passed.

Although our Coast Guard members are an invaluable asset to our nation’s defense, so too are our foreign seafarers, who are quite literally the backbone of the cruise industry.  With foreign cruise ship crew members already facing restrictions when it comes to filing a personal injury lawsuit in the United States, added a government-appointed cap on their rights could be devastating.

If the cruise industry is – by law – exempt from being held liable for the mistreatment of foreign seafarers, we can’t even imagine the type of suffering that these workers will have to endure. As it stands, cruise lines overwork and underpay their crew members, which has led to several accidents due to the simple fact that workers are tired and unable to focus properly on the task at hand. Further limiting crew member rights can have a tragic impact on the safety of passengers if the cruise lines are not held accountable for their negligence in providing a safe and fair working environment for crew members.

With the billions of dollars cruise lines bring in on a yearly basis, it’s appalling that they stand to profit even more at the expense of their hardworking crew members. But it seems safety is the last thing on legislators’ minds after introducing this bill.

Aside from attempting to propose an amendment to the bill’s sections that limit foreign crew member rights, Garamendi also tried to propose an amendment that would offer greater protection of passenger rights. He suggested the bill include a Cruise Ship Passenger Bill of Rights to protect cruise guests who suffer accidents and crimes onboard a vessel and who are often denied compensation for their injuries, much like crew members. You can read about the full extent of Garamendi’s amendments to HR 4005 here.

We applaud Congressman Garamendi’s efforts and wish him lunch in his endeavors to protect both crew and passenger rights. Unfortunately, it seems like no matter what legislation is proposed or how many steps we take toward a world regulated by FAIR maritime legislations, we are constantly forced to take twice as many steps back.