Sen. John “Jay” Rockefeller Unconvinced Cruise Industry is Making an Effort to Improve Safety

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Life saver In the wake of the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) public forum on cruise ship safety, Chairman John “Jay” Rockefeller released a statement voicing his opinion and concerns regarding the topic. According to Mr. Rockefeller, even after the serious accidents cruise lines have faced in the past few years, including the Costa Concordia capsizing tragedy and the Carnival Triumph fire, cruise lines have yet to “commit to fostering a long-term, industry-wide safety culture.”

Mr. Rockefeller, who held a senate committee hearing last year after releasing a cruise crime report, which exposed the cruise industry’s lack of transparency when reporting crimes on the high seas, has been advocating for greater passenger safety for several years. Though he recognizes that most cruise passengers are able to sail the seven seas without a hitch, the accidents and crimes that do occur are extreme in nature, leading to severe injuries or even the death of passengers.

Like the cruise ship accident attorneys at our firm, Mr. Rockefeller recognizes that problems onboard cruise ships have been occurring at a rapidly increasing frequency. And the problems go much further back than the Costa Concordia accident in 2012. Back in 2010, the Carnival Splendor experienced an explosion and fire in its engine room that disabled the ship. Similar to the Triumph fire, the Splendor incident resulted in an electrical systems failure and left thousands of passengers adrift without working air conditioning systems and sanitation problems.

But the Splendor and Triumph fires and the Costa Concordia capsizing tragedy are just three of the many incidents that have occurred within the cruise industry throughout the years, and which have been the result of the cruise lines’ own negligence in harboring a safe onboard environment for passengers.

Part of establishing safety onboard a cruise ship is to conduct frequent and thorough ship inspections. Since cruise ships these days are so large, a lot more time needs to be dedicated to inspecting vessels, as well as maintaining them in working condition. Unfortunately, crews have less than three hours between the time a ship docks and passengers debark, and the point where a new group of passengers embarks. Three hours is certainly not a sufficient amount of time to dedicate to the inspection of a vessel that can carry at least 4,000 passengers, especially when many accidents resulting from a mechanical problem on a ship involve small and often unnoticeable equipment issues.

For Mr. Rockefeller, the fact there is still an overall lack of commitment to long-term cruise ship safety is abominable. If there is even the slightest chance that an accident can occur given a particular cruise ship’s maintenance conditions, the problem should be addressed immediately. Yet, cruise lines only seem to take any decisive measures toward improving onboard safety only after a significant accident has occurred.

Instead of working to prevent a tragedy on the high seas, cruise lines tend to wait until passengers have been injured or killed to announce safety initiatives. But why is that?

It seems to boil down to two things: money and threatened regulation. Safety initiatives aren’t cheap, but at the same time, it costs a cruise line a whole lot less to revamp a fleet of ships and keep up with latest maritime safety technology than it would to compensate passengers after a serious accident – especially an accident that involves injuries or losses. At that point, surviving cruise passengers and the loved ones of those who are killed in a cruise accident may be eligible to file a lawsuit against the cruise line, thus resulting in a large settlement for the line itself. A settlement that would most likely far exceed the amount the cruise line would have spent on preventative safety measures. Also, cruise lines are terrified of governmental regulation and have repeatedly volunteered small and often meaningless regulatory concessions in order to avoid the sweeping regulations that the cruise industry is in need of.

Mr. Rockefeller has held several hearings on the cruise industry’s poor safety record, highlighting specific incidents that have resulted in unsafe traveling conditions. Among those are the cruise industry’s overall safety deficiencies in ship fire detection systems, poor evacuation procedures, lack of crew member training, and the inability to efficiently evacuate passengers in the event of an emergency.

In response, cruise lines have provided testimony on the safety changes they have already made, but these changes have come about very slowly – if at all.  Too little, too late!

Mr. Rockefeller also addressed the fact that the NTSB’s two-day forum on cruise ship safety failed to address the problem of cruise ship crime. He recognized that while crime was not the focus of this particular safety forum, crime onboard cruise ships continues to foster an unsafe environment for passengers, especially since crimes on cruise ships are vastly underreported.

Yet, even when crimes are reported to both authorities and the public, crime scenes are often compromised and perpetrators more often than not get away with their offenses – especially if the suspect is a crew member. According to Mr. Rockefeller, whether a cruise passenger is a victim of an accident or a crime makes no difference. The fact remains that cruise ship safety is not valued as highly as it should, and victims are usually left with little or no recourse.

If a cruise line does attempt to compensate passengers for an accident or crime, the voluntary compensation offered without a filed lawsuit tends to be minimal. And with dozens of one sided terms and conditions hidden within the cruise ticket contract, victims are often denied the compensation they truly deserve.

Up until recently, consumers were only aware of the accidents and crimes that make the media headlines. Unfortunately, the number of incidents that occur onboard cruise ships is far greater than what the industry and the media reports. Mr. Rockefeller introduced the Cruise Passenger Protection Act last year in the hopes of preserving passenger safety and keeping cruise operators on their toes, but it still has not effectively reduced the crime and accident rate.

All in all, Mr. Rockefeller does not believe that cruise lines are doing everything in their power to prevent a tragedy from happening on the high seas.

“Quite simply, I remain unconvinced that the cruise industry is doing enough to protect its passengers,” said Mr. Rockefeller. “Constant vigilance is necessary to ensure the safety of cruise line passengers.”

Mr. Rockefeller commended the NTSB for their increased scrutiny of the cruise industry, which he believes will help propagate action within the industry to improve safety for passengers. If cruise lines are constantly being watched, it would be in their best interest to shape up and truly commit themselves to a long-term plan of action that will effectively reduce both cruise ship accidents and crimes.