Will Cruise Industry Finally Improve Safety Following Yesterday’s U.S. Committee Hearing on Cruise Ship Safety?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Life saver 2Each maritime attorney at our firm has witnessed a greater number of cruise ship passengers get hurt or killed due to the continuing negligence of the industry within the past few months – more so than usual. We’ve witnessed innocent people suffer needlessly at the hands of inexperienced crew members, unreported crimes and the several loopholes imposed by cruise lines that allow them to avoid liability for their failure to protect passengers from harm. From the Costa Concordia capsizing tragedy to the Carnival Triumph cruise ship fire, the past 17 months have been filled with disastrous maritime incidents that have left an uncharacteristically large number of passengers victimized.

Though the cruise industry has claimed time and time again it will improve safety features in the wake of each new accident or crime, here were are, without any tangible evidence showing the industry has done anything to make good on their promise.

Frustrated by a seeming uncaring and uncooperative cruise industry, Sen. Jay Rockefeller called a U.S. Senate Committee hearing Wednesday to address the many issues within the industry that have resulted from a lack of safety.

The U.S. Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing titled, “Cruise Industry Oversight: Recent Incidents Show Need for Stronger Focus on Consumer Protection,” was aired online for the public to see and its revelations were nothing short of shocking.

Sen. Rockefeller began his testimony noting that millions of Americans enjoy taking cruise vacations each year because of the fun and once-in-a-lifetime experiences they offer. But while cruising can be fun, it has become a nightmare for hundreds of victims who have been involved in accidents and crimes at sea or in port.

In March, 2012, Rockefeller held an initial hearing to get answers from the industry as to why cruise passengers continually find themselves in harm’s way. At the hearing, he was assured by the leader of cruise industry’s new Global Trade Association, Christine Duffy, that authorities were actively working on improving safety features in the industry. While he didn’t really believe her, Rockefeller wanted to give industry a fair chance to prove itself – that was 16 months ago and there hasn’t been much evidence demonstrating that anything has changed.

As Rockefeller noted, and as anyone can see from the slew of incidents that have befallen the cruise industry as of late, serious accidents and crimes continue to happen. So if the cruise industry is seriously working on improving safety, why have we seen so many incidents in the past 16 month that show otherwise?

Sen. Rockfeller brought up a very valid point. He noted that only large scale incidents make the news, such as fires and groundings, but not all crimes that take place on cruise ships get reported. Cruise passengers and consumers in general have a right to know about what’s going on behind the scenes before they book their next cruise vacation, but the industry refuses to lift the veil on its wrongdoings.

Instead, the industry limits how passengers can file lawsuits, prevents crime reports from being made public, and overall, makes it extremely difficult for victims to obtain justice.

With the growing number of cruise ship accidents, it’s become clear that more needs to be done to protect passengers. Rockefeller introduced a legislation to take the initiative cruise lines are not taking, called the Cruise Passenger Protection Act, which would call for crime report data to become available to the public, but it requires industry cooperation to be successful.  Senator Richard Blumenthal is a co-sponsor of the proposed legislation and was also an active questioner during the Senate Committee hearing.

The witness panel which appeared before the Senate Committee consisted of Rear Admiral Joseph Servidio, Asst. Commandant for Prevention and Policy for the U.S. Coast Guard; Dr. Ross Klein, Cruise Ship Expert and Prof. of Sociology at St. Johns College, Memorial University of Newfoundland; Mark Rosenker,  Member of the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA)’s “Panel of Experts,” and Former Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board; Gerry Cahill, President and CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines, and Adam Goldstein, President and CEO of Royal Caribbean International.

Here’s a brief synopsis of some of that testimony:

Rear Admiral Joseph Servidio (U.S. Coast Guard):

Rear Admiral Servidio explained that the Coast Guard regularly conducts inspections on cruise lines, has trained crew members assessing risk situations, and runs frequent investigations onboard vessels. He explained that cruise ships must pass rigorous inspections before they can come into service and if a ship isn’t ready, it won’t be permitted to go into service. He noted how Carnival tried to bring the Triumph back into operation following the fire, but it did not pass the initial Coast Guard safety test due to faulty fire detection systems and unproven crew training. As a result, the vessel underwent a more in depth investigation to ensure it was ready to sail.

Dr. Ross Klein (Cruise Expert and Professor):

Perhaps the highlight of all of the people offering testimony was Dr. Ross Klein, professor of Sociology at St. Johns College, Memorial University of Newfoundland.  Dr. Klein, whose website cruisejunkie.com tracks various maritime accident and crime statistics, explained that in 2013 alone, the cruise ship industry experienced the following incidents:

  • 3 groundings
  • 5 cruise ship fires
  • 2 collision
  • 19 mechanical problems
  • 10 cancelled port calls and/or changes in itinerary
  • 16 delayed embarkations or debarkations
  • 2 passengers bumped
  • 8 failed health U.S. inspections

In response to these incidents, Dr. Klein reported that the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) – a self-regulated organization of cruise line operators – drafted and “voluntarily” adopted a Cruise Passenger Bill of Rights in late May.  Dr. Klein then warned that while many of the promises on the bill may be reassuring to passengers, a deeper look into what the bill promises passengers and what can tangibly be provided demonstrates the bill is merely “filled with empty promises.”  The ultimate enforceability of this CLIA Passenger Bill of Rights was also questioned by many present at the hearing.

To corroborate this notion, Dr. Klein brought up passenger right #5, which states that cruise guests have a right to a ship crew that is properly trained in emergency protocols and procedures. While he doesn’t doubt that crews may be “properly” trained, Dr. Klein asks, without testing of the crew – what reassurances are there that “trained” crew members are actually competent?

Furthering his point, Dr. Klein referenced the 2012 Costa Concordia grounding accident and how crew members, though trained to handle emergency procedures, as all crew members must be before they are hired, were frenzied, unable to properly communicate with one another and struggled to effectively assist passengers.

Another example is the 2010 Carnival Splendor cruise ship fire. Just last week, the U.S. Coast Guard finally released details on what caused the Splendor fire, and it turns out that it was a combination of mechanical and human error – human error mostly. One of the Splendor’s crew members, for reasons which are yet unknown, decided to reset a fire alarm on the bridge of the vessel right before the fire erupted. This critical crew member mistake caused a delay in the activation of the Splendor’s Hi-Fog system, which is designed to contain and extinguish fires, allowing the fire to spread across the ship and knocking out power. As a result, over 4,000 people were left stranded off the coast of Mexico for three days.

With regard to onboard crimes, Dr. Klein went on to address a key issue within the industry: a lack of crime statistics reporting. The original Cruise Ship Bill of Rights draft would have called for full disclosure of all crimes on cruise lines. To this day, most crimes are not reported to the FBI or the FBI itself doesn’t disclose them to the public.

Cruise lines report what they want to report, as they always have, and if something isn’t seriously done to regulate this practice, lines will continue to do so and the truth regarding the real number of accidents and crimes will never be revealed. It is only until the truth is revealed that something can really be done to really analyze these problems, correct them, and prevent them.

Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean Cruises, through their CEO’s promised to post every single claim of crime aboard their ships on their websites starting August 1, 2013 (going back to the last quarter) – however, Ross Klein noted his skepticism with “promises” made by the cruise industry at Senate Hearings.  Dr. Klein noted that at the last Senate Committee hearing the cruise industry CLIA representative stated that CLIA would be contacting Dr. Klein for his input into new rules and procedures that CLIA was contemplating; however, Dr. Klein noted for this Committee – “16 months have passed and my phone has not rang . . . .”  Dr. Klein went on to explain that this illustrated the cruise industry’s interest in only listening to their own insiders as opposed to independent outside suggestions.

Mark Rosenker (A CLIA paid “expert”):

Mark Rosenker,  a former head of the NTSB appeared in his capacity as a paid CLIA “expert,”  discussed how CLIA created a self-described “independent panel of experts” tasked to review safety in the industry back in Jan. 2012, following the Concordia grounding. The panel is supposed to review industry operations, identify problems and recommend policies and procedures.

Mark Rosenker’s testimony before the Senate Committee is best put into perspective with his (admittedly paraphrased) statement that he is tasked with the job of making cruising, which is already a very safe mode of transportation, safer.  Senator Rockefeller’s reaction noted the CLIA insider’s bias toward the industry that was paying him.

Mr. Rosenker explained that following the Concordia accident, CLIA, in conjunction with the European Cruise Council (ECC), released 10 safety proposals that all cruise companies were supposed to follow and which were also accepted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Mr. Rosenker claims that since then, CLIA has been working even harder on improving safety policies and that the cruise industry is receptive to the input of the panel.  [Note Dr. Ross Klein’s comments regarding the identical statement made by CLIA at the last Senate Committee Hearing – namely they never contacted him after telling the Senate Committee they would].

Mr. Rosenker’s statements to the Senate Committee that cruise travel is “extremely safe,” was laughable in light of the recent plethora of cruise safety issues beginning with the sinking of the Costa Concordia; and also revealed his bias and CLIA’s agenda.  In our opinion, it served as one of the best examples to the Senate Committee why these hearings and proposed legislation is necessary – CLIA simply cannot and will not honestly regulate the cruise industry itself.

So what did cruise line executives (Gerald Cahill and Adam Goldstein – Carnival and RCCL) have to say about all this?

After an hour of testimony, the Presidents and CEOs of Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International, Gerry Cahill and Adam Goldstein, respectively, gave their own speeches.

Cahill’s testimony lasted less than 2 minutes and was characterized by Chairman Rockefeller of missing any substance whatsoever.  Cahill simply gave the Senate Committee the runaround, never mentioning anything about the accident statistics and concluded his brief statement claiming Carnival has an “excellent safety record.”

Note, back in March, Cahill testified at the annual Cruise Shipping Miami conference that a multimillion-dollar initiative would be launched in order to improve safety regulations on Carnival ships.

When it was Goldstein’s turn to speak, he said that Royal exceeded its obligations in providing compensation to victims under the passenger bill of rights. Goldstein admitted that the CLIA Passenger Bill of Rights created a legally binding contract on the cruise line operators which was legally enforceable in a Court of law.  Lastly, he promised that on RCCL’s website, starting August 1, 2013, the general public will see a list of every claim of crime aboard their ships – whether investigated by the FBI or not.  Goldstein bet that once those statistics are made public it will prove through the numbers that people on cruise ships are less susceptible to crime than those on land.  Perhaps we’ll see . . . .

After their initial speeches, Chairman Rockefeller brought up a very important point. The Carnival Triumph was recently detained in Galveston by Coast Guard for issues with life boats and fire detection and suppression systems – this was just last month on June 12. The issues were rectified, but only after they were brought up by the Coast Guard. In fact, the Coast Guard found a total of 28 deficiencies in the Triumph, including issues with the fire sprinkler systems Gerry Cahill assured would be corrected in March.

When he called on Cahill to explain how Carnival claims it was going to invest 300 million on safety features, but nothing has been done, Cahill gave the runaround yet again, saying things have and “will” be done.

Lastly, Chairman Rockefeller called attention to the fact that the represented cruise lines, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, pay approximately 1% of their gross revenue in U.S. income taxes – making the point that cruise lines remain an effectively taxless industry.  Yet, cruise lines are a massive drain on public resources – the U.S. Coast Guard and the Courts, in particular.  Chairman Rockefeller then noted to the cruise lines, in concluding the hearing, that he is working on legislation to close those “loopholes” that the cruise lines utilize in order to avoid paying U.S. income taxes.