Princess Cruises Passenger Goes Overboard

Coast Guard helicopterOur cruise ship lawyers here at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. have reported on several accidents that have occurred both on a ship and in port which have led to serious injuries. Some accidents can’t be avoided, but others are due to sheer negligence. When you have a catastrophic accident, like an overboard accident, the cruise line in question is usually at least partially to blame. Whether it’s because they failed to have crew members on site to prevent the incident in the first place, or whether it’s because they failed to have overboard detection systems in place, in most cases, cruise lines are found to have contributed to the accident. Despite the issue of passenger safety that has been brought up time and time again, cruise lines seem to care more about investing their funds on improving entertainment onboard a ship than to improve safety features. And this week, a tragic overboard accident further demonstrates that the cruise industry is very far from being “safe”.

News sources have reported that a passenger has fallen overboard from a Princess Cruises ship this week. The victim, a female passenger, was last seen around 1 p.m. Wednesday. She was sailing aboard the Grand Princess northeast of Hawaii when the accident occurred. However, after reviewing footage of the incident, cruise officials are saying that the woman “intentionally” went overboard.

Though a search was called for the missing woman, several things appear to have gone wrong with the situation. First, a Coast Guard rescue team was sent to the area where the woman was last seen, roughly 700 miles northeast of Hilo, HI, at around 4 p.m. – THREE hours after the woman was reported to have gone overboard. How could such a critical operation take so long? The airplane crew that was sent to help with the mission was also estimated to take about two hours to get to the ship, so all in all, it took about FIVE hours for rescue operators to show up. This is pretty preposterous.

Was it an error on the Grand Princess crew’s part or the Coast Guard’s mistake? We don’t know yet exactly at what time Princess officials called the cruise company, but what we do know is that cruise lines are required to notify maritime authorities like the Coast Guard and FBI as soon as possible following the news of a missing passenger. According to Princess, the Coast Guard was notified right away. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard isn’t sharing the exact time the phone call came in.

What’s worse is the fact that another passenger claims to have seen the woman jump into the ocean and immediately notified the cruise staff. At this point, the crew reviewed surveillance footage and determined that the woman did, in fact, intentionally jump. The incident happened in broad daylight, at a moment when there were probably hundreds of passengers walking around and when dozens of crew members should also have been out and about. Where were the crew members when the woman fell? Where exactly did she fall? From her room? From the Lido Deck?

There are several unanswered questions at this point. So, let’s try to make some sense of the accident. The passenger reported the overboard victim at around 1 p.m., then crew members reviewed the footage before calling the Coast Guard. Did it take them hours to review the footage before calling the Coast Guard or is it that they just took their time in reporting the accident in general? It seems highly unlikely that the Coast Guard would be the ones to waste any time before deploying a rescue helicopter. We can’t say for sure what exactly happened between the hours of 1 and 4 p.m., but what we can say is that these three hours that were unaccounted for could have cost the victim her life.

A two-day search of the area where the passenger was seen jumping over the ship was inconclusive. The woman’s body has yet to be found, but officials aren’t giving up hope just yet. The victim could have possibly survived, though unlikely at this point.

But the bad news doesn’t stop there. The cruise line and the Coast Guard couldn’t get their story straight regarding the woman’s age. According to Princess officials, the victim was 54 years old, but according to the Coast Guard, she was in her 30s. Which one is it? Since the name of the victim hasn’t been released (pending family notification), we won’t know for a few more days.

This entire accident just seems to have negligence written all over it. Granted, the woman was caught on camera intentionally jumping, but if one passenger noticed her going overboard, and the accident happened around 1 p.m., why didn’t Princess have any crew members near the scene? Furthermore, why didn’t Princess have any radar detection system in place that would have been better able to locate the victim?

Congress passed the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act in 2010 for this very reason. The law requires cruise lines to implement systems to capture images of anyone going overboard and forward these images to the vessel’s bridge. The system would allow for crews to take immediate action to search for the missing person, but it’s no surprise that barely any lines have implemented the technology, despite the fact that it is readily available.

Overboard accidents are extremely serious and extremely common. According to Professor Ross Klein, cruise expert and author of the Cruise Junkie website, 208 people have gone overboard from cruise ships and ferry boats in the past 13 years alone, and this is only the number of incidents that have actually been reported. The real number is probably a lot closer to 300, if not greater, but due to discrepancies between the way cruise lines report (or rather, fail to report) accidents to the Coast Guard and FBI and, in turn, the discrepancy between the way these agencies disclose this information with the public, we’ll probably never know the real number of missing persons with accuracy.

Though there has been a lot of talk about improving passenger safety features on cruise ships, the industry still has a long way to go before it can say that vessels are truly “safe”.  The past two years have seen a much higher accident rate than others, beginning with the Costa Concordia capsizing tragedy and followed with this year’s Carnival Triumph fire. But still, we have yet to see the day when lines will actually make good with their promise to refurbish their ships to include new technology that will protect passengers from harm, especially the technology that will detect passengers when they fall overboard.