Recent Overboard Passenger Accident Raises Questions of Safety Within the Cruise Industry

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Coast Guard helicopterOverboard accidents are one of the most common types of accidents onboard cruise ships. Since 1995, a total of 231 overboard accidents have been reported. In the first few months of this year alone, 11 people have been reported missing from cruise ships, some of which were caught on camera falling or jumping overboard, while the circumstances surrounding the other accidents continues to remain a mystery.

Sadly, another overboard accident was recently reported near Florida, and the likelihood of rescuing the victim grows dimmer with each passing day.

According to news reports, the victim was James Miller, 30, of Charleston, South Carolina.  Crew members reported Miller jumped over the railing of the Bahamas Celebration cruise ship, operated by Celebration Cruise Line, while the vessel was en route to its home port in West Palm Beach.

The accident happened around 27 miles east of Delray Beach, which is a relatively short distance to port when considering the likelihood of finding and rescuing the victim.  But while cruise officials argue the Bahamas Celebration crew turned the ship around the moment they realized Miller was missing, by the time they reached the area, Miller was nowhere in sight. Coast Guard members initiated a search for Miller, while the Bahamas Celebration continued along its scheduled itinerary.

Is the cruise ship somehow responsible for this tragedy? According to the family of the missing man, the answer is yes.

The family blames the ship for being ill-equipped to handle an overboard passenger emergency. In a letter to the cruise line, the family noted that the ship’s search light was broken, that there were two boats on the ship that could have been used in the rescue attempt, but only one was used, that the music on the pool deck kept playing after Miller was reported missing, which would have made it impossible for anyone to hear if Miller was yelling for help, and that one crew member was even caught sleeping.

The victim’s uncle also believes Miller did not jump off the ship. In an interview with the Palm Beach Post, Ted Miller said his nephew was in good spirits and was “not suicidal.”

“He had everything going good for himself, he had a good job, he had young children,” said Ted Miller. “I just could not see it.”

Miller was vacationing with his girlfriend of five years. From what we know, Celebration Cruise Line did not mention any report of an altercation between the couple, which could at least shed some light on the situation. So then, what really happened?

It seems all we have to go on is the crew member reports of Miller jumping ship. Should we really trust this word of mouth statement? Does the cruise line have any video proof that Miller did, in fact, jump? Importantly, Federal law expressly states cruise lines “shall integrate technology that can be used for capturing images of passengers or detecting passengers who have fallen overboard, to the extent that such technology is available.”

Of course, we now know such technology certainly is available.  By now, sadly it’s not likely Miller survived, but it would be helpful if investigators at least had some sort of substantial evidence to determine what really happened.  .

Each cruise ship accident lawyer at our firm has stressed time and time again that shipboard safety needs to become a much more significant priority for cruise operators. Though there are countless ways to reduce tragedies at sea – like overboard accidents – cruise lines continue to ignore them, placing passenger and crew member safety on the backburner.

Cruise lines can, for example, actually monitor the surveillance footage onboard ships to determine if any suspicious activity is taking place. That way, if something out of the ordinary is noticed, ship security can act quickly to prevent an accident or crime. If Miller was caught on camera, and someone was actually watching the footage, the ship could have been immediately stopped and crew members could have searched for Miller as soon as the accident happened, drastically increasing his chance of survival. Few cruise lines actually have workers monitoring surveillance footage with the excuse that there are just too many cameras to monitor. But then, what’s the point of having cameras on the ship if no one is going to watch them?!

Another measure cruise lines can take to improve safety on ships is to equip vessels with the latest technology, such as radar detection, which can sense when someone falls from a ship the moment it happens. One of the reasons overboard accidents are often fatal is the fact that by the time crew members realize someone is missing, not only do they have little or no idea where and when the victim actually fell, but even if they do manage to return to the area where the accident occurred, so much time has passed that the victims will have likely drowned.  This is exactly what appears to have happened with Miller. Reports show that it took 20 minutes for the Coast Guard to reach the area where Miller reportedly jumped ship – those 20 minutes are critical when it comes to someone struggling for dear life in open waters. Even in relatively warm waters, like those off the coast of Florida where the accident happened, and even if the victim can swim, they still have to worry about fatigue in trying to stay afloat without a life jacket and perhaps the worst worry of all – sharks.

Very few overboard accident victims have actually survived. One of them is our client, Sarah Kirby, who fell from a Carnival Cruise ship almost two years ago. By pure miracle Sarah managed to remain afloat, despite the fact that she was severely injured from the fall.

Unfortunately, Kirby’s case is a rare one. Most people who fall from cruise ships, sadly, do not survive. Given the  lack of safety onboard cruise ship, is the Bahamas Celebration  to blame for this recent overboard accident? It certainly seems so. And this is aside from the fact that we don’t even know whether Miller really fell or was pushed or was so overserved alcohol (by the cruise line) that he fell overboard.  It facially appears that  the ship was ill-equipped to handle an overboard accident and rescue a missing passenger. And, according to the family, crew members didn’t even make as much of an effort to search for Miller as they could have. According to them, the ship even continued on its itinerary as if the crew had wiped its hands clean of the incident.

As the accident tally rises, we wonder, will the cruise industry ever take an active stand to improve safety for passengers and crew? From the increasing injury and death toll, the answer doesn’t appear to be a hopeful one.

Sometimes we here feel like we are a broken record, but unless and until the federal government steps in and begins actually regulating the cruise ship industry.  Sad stories like James Miller’s will continue to be told.