Senate Committee Hearing Reveals Continued Prevalence of Sexual Assault Crimes on Cruise Ships (Part 1)

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Senator John Rockefeller Cruise Ship Safety HearingSexual assault is an issue that has plagued the cruise industry for several years. Unfortunately, as each maritime lawyer at our firm knows all too well, not very many people are aware of this.  For years, the cruise industry has been allowed and worked very hard to hide the number of crimes that occur on board, as a result only minimal about this has gotten out to the public.

Though maritime law requires crimes to be reported to the FBI, Coast Guard and other appropriate law enforcement agencies, the fact that most cruise ships are registered in foreign countries and fly foreign flags results in a kind of loophole – one that has allowed the cruise lines to get away with not reporting these crimes. By flying these “flags of convenience”, cruise lines until recently, had been allowed by the U. S. government to not have to report these crimes.

One might think that an allegation as serious as sexual assault would be taken seriously by the cruise lines, but in an effort to protect themselves, what they usually did was fire and send home the accused rapist if he was a non ranking member of the vessels crew and the victim if also a crew member or if a passenger try to convince them to not report it to U.S authority and to instead let the line deal with the perpetrator.  The cruise lines motivation for this should be obvious, they believed that if they disclosed all the information about the crimes that do occur on board, future cruisers would be discouraged from booking a cruise vacation out of fear they might become the next target, this in turn which would result in a lose of a lot revenue. Additionally the line might also be accused of negligence for failing to maintain a safe shipboard environment. Yes, things can happen that are out of any one’s control sometimes, but the majority of crimes and accidents that occur on cruise ships happen because of a lack of sufficient safety measures. Like, for example, insufficient security measures, surveillance equipment, security guards, adequate monitoring of the security system on board or even because it did not properly screen crew members or train crew on how to respond to emergency situations.

Though there are times when cruise lines report sexual crimes right away, there have been far more times when not much has been done by the cruise line’s to help victims. Instead the cruise line either delay reporting the incident to the federal and local law enforcement agents or chose not to do so entirely. This tends to happen mostly when the accused is a crew member. The fact that sexual assaults happen on cruise ships is enough to scare even the most seasoned of cruisers, but knowing that the assailant can be a crew member – one who may even have access to your cabin – is enough to discourage people from even booking a cruise.

Over time, cruise lines have developed somewhat of a standardized response to sexual assault and rape allegations. If a cruise passenger – or even a crew member – reports a sexual crime, it is highly likely that the cruise line will try to settle the matter as quickly and quietly as they can, and if possible, outside of court. It is also likely the line will try to convince the victim into keeping quiet about the incident, thus propagating the cycle of secrecy.

What the cruise lines fail to realize is the fact that by making these reports public knowledge and making a significant effort to reduce ship board crimes by increasing safety on ships in general, the number of crimes and accidents on ships would decline. The public is already aware that cruise ships are not as safe as cruise lines portray them to be due to the incidents that are reported by the media, such as the Carnival Triumph fire in 2013 and Costa Concordia capsizing tragedy in 2012. There’s no reason for cruise lines to keep denying the obvious fact that shipboard safety is subpar. But still, despite accident after accident and crime after crime, nothing was happening to change cruise line policies.

Enter Senator John “Jay” Rockefeller.

Senator Rockefeller has spent much of his life trying to improve maritime safety, especially within the cruise industry. After seeing the cruise industry’s continued lack of response to the growing crime and accident rate, the Senator decided to hold hearings on cruise ship safety – the second of its kind since last year. Find out more about the hearing and how sexual crimes on ships were addressed in Part 2 of our blog.