One Year Later: Senate Committee to Reconvene over Continued Lack of Safety within Cruise Industry (Part 2)

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Life saver In Part 1 of this two-part blog series, we discussed how the continued lack of safety within the cruise industry has prompted Senator John “Jay” Rockefeller to host several Senate Committee hearings on the issue. Despite the advances in surveillance and accident detection technology and the number of incidents that have occurred within the cruise industry, including injuries, assaults, thefts, and death, the cruise industry doesn’t seem to be taking the necessary procedures to ensure optimal safety for passengers on board. The continued increase in cruise crime and accident statistics has led the senator to propose another hearing to discuss these issues, which will hopefully be the turning point for improved cruise safety policies and procedures.

The new hearing, titled “The Cruise Passenger Protection Act: Improving Consumer Protections for Cruise Passengers,” is scheduled for July 23, 2014 at 2:30 PM and will be broadcasted live to the public via the Senate Committee’s website.

Much like each admiralty attorney at our firm, Sen. Rockefeller recognizes that the lack of industry-wide safety onboard ships has contributed to the escalating number of incidents. A problem that we’ve seen time and time against is that safety seems to be an afterthought for the cruise industry. It usually takes a serious accident or crime to occur – followed by heavy media coverage – to get cruise operators to discuss safety concerns and make promises to improve safety policies or even address the concerns of the public or maritime safety organizations.

Unfortunately, cruise ship safety isn’t one of those “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” matters. Cruise lines shouldn’t wait until someone is seriously injured, assaulted, robbed, or killed in order to make improvements to their safety policies. If there is even the slightest chance that an accident or crime may occur due to a particular cruise ship’s maintenance conditions or the line’s overall safety policies, the issue should be addressed immediately. Sadly, this has not been the case, and hopefully, next week’s hearing will touch upon this critical concern.

But after all these hearings, all these new safety legislations and all the media attention, why exactly is it that the cruise industry continues to face growing accident and crime rates? There have been several technology enhancements that could help to drastically reduce incidents, such as better surveillance technology and infrared detectors that can sense the instant someone goes overboard from a vessel. For a multibillion-dollar industry, shouldn’t the cost of making the necessary changes seem trivial, compared to the number of victims who have been affected by the lack of safety aboard ships or in port?

One would think so, but the unfortunate truth is that it appears that the reason better safety policies haven’t been enacted across the cruise industry does boil down to money; money and power.

As can be imagined, safety initiatives do not come cheap. Installing new equipment and even improving crew member training or hiring policies can cost a lot of money. Though cruise lines make billions, perhaps they fall prey to greed and don’t want to invest in any expensive initiatives unless they absolutely have to. It seems silly to wait until an incident has occurred for the cruise lines to invest, especially since it costs a lot more to revise existing policies or revamp a ship to equip it with the latest safety technology features, and of course, it definitely costs more when cruise lines are found guilty of negligence and have to compensate passengers following a serious accident. A large settlement, such as one following the sexual assault or death of a passenger due to a lack of shipboard safety, will most likely far exceed the amount of money a preventative safety initiative would cost. Yet, cruise lines are still waiting for the absolute last minute to improve their policies.

Another reason why many cruise lines also stall in making safety improvements is the fact that they are not very keen on the idea of being regulated by the U.S. government. As it stands, the fact that most cruise lines are registered in foreign countries and fly foreign flags allows them to avoid liability for many incidents that transpire on board.

If the government were to excise greater control over cruise lines, they would face a lot more trouble than they already do when a maritime safety law is violated. Cruise lines would also be subject to greater monitoring, which means they would have no other choice but to do as the government asks as far as improving safety measures. For this reason, many cruise lines just do the bare minimum, such as volunteering crime statistics information or making other small changes that would avoid a sweeping regulation.

For example, say a cruise safety initiative has 10 provisions. Out of those 10, a cruise line might adhere to 6 or 7 – just enough to get the government off their back so they can avoid being fully regulated. But those 10 provisions are there for a reason. This half-hearted effort just doesn’t cut it, because it could very well be those 3 or 4 provisions that were ignored that could be the decisive factors in saving the lives of future cruise passengers.

Next week’s hearing is certainly not the first held by Sen. Rockefeller, and most likely not the last if cruise lines continue to show a disregard for shipboard safety by either blatantly ignoring safety laws or making changes at an extremely slow pace.

In Sen. Rockefeller’s opinion, “Constant vigilance is necessary to ensure the safety of cruise line passengers.” Perhaps next week’s hearing will introduce much stricter policies that will afford the government greater control over the way the cruise industry is regulated.