The Reality of Criminal Prosecution for Sexual Assaults Aboard Ships

Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Cruise Ship Sexual Assault Facts

Since 1971, our cruise ship rape law firm has represented a large number of victims of sexual assault on the high seas. While the facts are not pleasant, they highlight the need for a victim to retain a cruise ship rape lawyer sexual assault attorney experienced in this area of law. Several patterns emerged among the many incidents of sexual assault over the years.

Some of the facts are:

  1. 173 reports—No One Prosecuted. One major cruise line documented 173 reports of sexual assault or rape in a five-year period. Not a single alleged perpetrator was prosecuted in any of these cases.
  2. Maritime Industry Culture Outdates. A February 2013 article in Newsweek quotes Jim Hall, head of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) during the Clinton administration, who said the industry is watched over by “paper tigers” like the International Maritime Organization and suffers from “bad actors.” “The maritime industry is the oldest transportation industry around. We’re talking centuries. It’s a culture that has never been broken as the aviation industry was, and you see evidence of that culture in the [Costa Concordia] accident,” Hall said. Ships may feel American but are mostly “flagged” in countries like the Bahamas or Panama, in order to operate outside of what Hall says are reasonable safety standards. “It is, and has been, an outlaw industry,” says Hall. “People who book cruises should be aware of that.”
  3. Cruise Industry Untruthful About Safety. Cruise ship sexual assault data released in August 2013 by four of the largest cruise ship operators in the industry, representing over 80 percent of the United States domestic cruise ship market share, revealed that the industry is not being entirely truthful with the cruising public about safety statistics. The issue surfaced when the Senate introduced legislation that will require accurate disclosures, if passed.
  4. Cruise Lines Fail to Report Crime. Before the issue of transparency in reporting crimes to the public was raised, a report from Senator John D. Rockefeller in 2013 indicated that cruise lines reported 29 sexual crimes to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2012, but reported only 11 to the public. In the first six months of 2013 alone, 14 rape cases and 11 sexual assault cases were reported. This a significant difference between what the crime data provided by cruise lines to the FBI over the past few years has suggested.
  5. Sexual Assault Top Crime at Sea. According to the FBI , sexual assault is the leading crime reported to and investigated by the Bureau in the high seas (comprising 55 percent of the crimes at sea that are reported to the Bureau).
  6. Victims Don’t Always Report Assault. Sexual assault is one of the least reported violent crimes. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, as many as 60 percent of onshore sexual assault victims decline to report the crime. It is likely that many cruise passengers who experience sexual assault on a cruise also will not report the crime, and therefore such crimes never become part of industry cruise safety statistics.
  7. Passengers Can’t Confirm Rate of Crime at Sea. The cruise industry maintains that the rate of sexual assault at sea is significantly lower than the onshore rate of sexual assault. However, there is no reliable way to assess whether the cruise lines are fully and accurately reporting all onboard sexual assaults to federal authorities. The cruise industry is already expected to report cruise crime to the authorities, but what is reported to the FBI is not automatically made public. It is virtually impossible for passengers or independent third- parties to confirm whether each incident of sexual assault has been fully and properly recorded.

Unless you or someone close to you experiences a sexual assault or rape on a cruise, it is easy to forget that the risk of sexual assaulted is very real. When you leave U.S. waters on a cruise ship, you also leave behind some of the protections that you enjoy on land as a U.S. citizen.

Seek A Cruise Ship Rape Lawyer to Deal with Complex Laws Aboard a Vessel

Laws regarding sexual assault aboard a vessel can be quite complex. Because the assault can occur on the high seas, the governing law can be unclear. If you have suffered an assault on a cruise ship or other vessel, you should review the facts of your case with a competent attorney who has extensive experience with at-sea sexual assault incidents. Our attorneys at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. can provide a no-cost initial consultation. The sooner you seek legal counsel, the better.

In addition to statutory law, cases with binding authority, or precedent, establish some of the maritime laws in this area. A few important statutes and precedents are set forth below.

Jurisdiction: Who Can Hear a Case?

Criminal jurisdiction, or the ability for a particular court to exercise criminal punishment authority over a case, exists on cruise vessels, but it is intricate and usually involves a number of states or countries at the same time. Depending on where a vessel is located at the time of the criminal incident on the high seas, United States courts might have the right to exercise some level of jurisdiction over the case.

If a victim of a crime on the high seas is a U.S. citizen, for example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) may be the lead investigating law enforcement agency. However, other nations may have jurisdiction as well. Because of the complexities of international law, law enforcement may not arrive on a vessel at sea until its next port call. International law and cooperative efforts to respond often drastically slow the response time. In the meantime, critical hours or days may have elapsed since the crime occurred. Evidence is often lost and little can be done by the time the police finally arrive. Cases disintegrate from an evidentiary standpoint.

As a practical matter, therefore, criminal law enforcement is largely ineffectual in a cruise ship sexual assault matter. Even victims of straightforward statutory rape cruise ship cases rarely see justice because of the practical complexities of coordinating law enforcement investigations with an appropriate agency and the movement of a ship.

Cases involving jurisdiction give a court the authority to render a decision in a case, meaning the court has a sufficient connection to the case to issue a binding order on the parties. Below are a few laws and cases governing jurisdictional issues:

  1. State of Florida v. Matthew Stepansky, 761 So. 2d. 1027 (S. Ct. 2000): The Florida Supreme Court ruled that a state has the ability to try certain crimes committed on the high seas, though not directly committed in Florida.
  2. Florida Statute Title XLVII, Chapter 910.006: Provides Florida law enforcement officials special maritime jurisdiction in certain crimes where:
    • The suspect aboard the ship is from Florida or a state with an agreement with Florida.
    • The victim is a Florida law enforcement officer aboard the ship in their official capacity.
    • The victim is a resident of Florida and the “act or omission is one of violence, detention, or depredation generally recognized as criminal.”
    • More than 50 percent of the ship passengers embarked from a Florida port and will ultimately disembark in Florida.
    • Where an element of the act or omission is an attempt or conspiracy to cause a substantial effect in Florida.
    • Where the state may apply criminal law under international law or treaty.
  3. Title 18 United States Code, Chapter 7: Provides for special maritime jurisdiction when an offense is committed by or against a U.S. citizen in a place outside the jurisdiction of any nation. This also covers foreign vessels that have a United States arrival or departure port.

Strict Liability Responsibility of Cruise Lines

In some cases, the plaintiff does not need to prove an element of culpability, or intent to do wrong. A plaintiff need only demonstrate that the action occurred in order to prove the defendant guilty.

  • Naddeau v. Costley and Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc., 634 So. 2d 649 (Fla. App. 4th DCA 1994): The Florida District Court of Appeals found a cruise line strictly liable for a sexual assault committed by a crew member against a passenger. Strict liability removes the requirement to prove fault, such as negligence or intent, and only requires the plaintiff to prove that the tortious conduct occurred. This is a significant development for cruise ship assault victims.

Statutory Rape Aboard Cruise Ships

Statutory rape consists of any sexual acts conducted with a minor child under 16 years of age. At this age, the child is considered legally incapable of providing consent and the act is classified as a strict liability criminal act.

Obtaining Justice for Victims

Victims can usually seek justice in courts of civil jurisdiction, usually in the form of money damages. The reality is that pursuing a civil action with an attorney is often the only recourse of many criminal cases that occur on the high seas. At Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A, our cruise ship rape attorneys have years of practical experience navigating the jurisdictional complexities of a civil damages case. We are determined to help our clients seek justice wherever possible if they have been the victim of sexual assault.

Our cruise ship injury lawyer app provides an invaluable resource in the event that the unexpected happens. It is free to download and provides resources to use in the event of an assault, such as response checklists and a means to preserve photos, videos, audio recordings, notes and more. Download our app at no cost from iTunes or the Android Marketplace.

You can also embark on your trip better prepared by reading the e-book, “Unsafe on the High Seas,” written by one of our own attorneys, Charles R. Lipcon. Attorney Lipcon’s book, which has enjoyed a place among Amazon.com’s top 30 travel books, is available for download on the Kindle and other reading devices.

Our firm is located in Florida and serves an international clientele from countries in North America, Central America, South America, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Asia. We have the ability to handle matters worldwide and assist clients who speak any language. Cruise line rape, harassment and assault occur frequently. We can help. Contact a cruise ship rape lawyer at our firm today for a free consultation.