Would Cruise Lines Have Fewer Problems if They Were Based in the U.S.?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Did you know that once you board a cruise ship, even if you leave from the United States, you are no longer on U.S. soil, and thus not subject to U.S. laws? Instead, you are in the territory of the flag of the ship (usually Bahamas or Panama). What difference does it make? You may be surprised.

One problem that is a constant source of stress for victims who have suffered in a cruise ship accident is the fact that the vast majority of cruise lines are based in foreign countries. Pretty much every single cruise ship is registered in a foreign country and flies a foreign flag, which often makes it more difficult for victims to obtain swift justice for their pain and suffering. Given that there have been an alarming number of maritime accidents since the beginning of the year (more so than usual), this begs the question: Would cruise lines experience less issues if they were based in the United States?

As far as reporting an incident goes, a locally-based cruise company would undoubtedly have fewer problems not only because cruise lines would be subjected to tougher laws so they would likely try harder to avoid any mishaps, but also because it would be a lot easier for victims to file claims and obtain information on their cases.

By registering their ships out of the U.S., cruise lines are often able to evade or limit responsibility for injuries, deaths or crimes that occur on their vessels. When ships are registered in foreign countries, the main investigative authority in charge of handling the case will be the country whose flag the vessel flies. Nearly every single ship operated by the major U.S. cruise lines are registered in a foreign country, and the majority fly the flags of Bermuda, Panama or the Bahamas.

Although each country is responsible to ensure the ships under their flags adhere to international maritime standards, the law isn’t strictly upheld in foreign countries. It is much easier for a case to go unnoticed and unreported if a vessel flies a foreign flag and it will be exponentially more difficult for victims to obtain any information on their case. If ships were registered in the U.S., not only would the laws for following through with a cruise ship accident or crime investigation be more stringent, but victims would have easier access to their reports because of transparency laws.

Foreign flags are often referred to as ‘flags of convenience,’ allowing cruise lines to circumvent U.S. laws – not to mention allowing lines to avoid paying U.S. taxes. There have been several proposals by maritime organizations to require cruise lines to register their vessels in the U.S. in order to avoid this loophole, but we have yet to see the day when cruise lines are held fully liable for their negligent actions. Similarly, several U.S. Congressmen have floated bills that would increase regulation over the cruising industry. Sadly, there is little traction behind these bills, as they are easily stopped in the tracks by the deep pockets of the industry.

Nonetheless, there is a much greater chance for the cruise line industry to become safer if U.S. laws were imposed and enforced. U.S. authorities are more diligent in carrying out investigations and have greater access to investigative equipment. Foreign countries follow different standards and may not have all the tools to properly document an accident or crime.

Were ships to be registered in the U.S., we would likely see a surge in the number of vessels being sent to dry dock for improved safety features that will reduce the likelihood of an accident.

Justice would also be obtained much more quickly for victims since lines would not have the ability to include loopholes in their cruise passenger ticket contracts, such as forcing certain passengers’ to file cases abroad.

Perhaps most importantly, bringing cruise lines under the control of U.S. law would most benefit the crewmembers. As of now, several cruise companies get away with mistreating their crew, denying them medical benefits, lost wages and forcing them to go into foreign arbitrations when an injury, crime or act of negligence transpires.

Under United States Law, seafarers (including cruise ship crew members) who are injured or become ill while on service of their vessel have the right to the following:

  1. Free medical care
  2. Free food and shelter
  3. Wages and tips
  4. Transportation
  5. Contract benefits
  6. Money for injuries and disabilities
  7. A work environment free of sexual harassment and discrimination

Unfortunately, these foreign arbitrations take these cases out of U.S. courts and essentially work to deprive crewmembers of their rights.

Luckily, all cruise ship victims, whether passenger or crew, are entitled to file a claim with a cruise lawyer to obtain compensation for their pain and suffering, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that a cruise company should be held fully responsible to ensure accidents and crimes are prevented to begin with.

Were cruise lines to be registered in the United States, the chances of both passengers and crew members being provided with a safer environment and the liabilities for cruise lines in the event of an accident or crime would be much greater, thus reducing the number of problems overall for lines. It’s a simple formula: greater regulation = greater safety.