Charles R. Lipcon Featured in the Miami Herald

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

This week, our firm’s maritime lawyer, Charles R. Lipcon, has been featured in the Miami Herald in an article regarding the two-year anniversary of the Costa Concordia crash and significance of the tragic accident on cruise ship safety. The article discusses the capsizing accident, which took place on January 12, 2012, and how ironically, though ships have claimed they would change their ways, nothing has been done to truly improve safety for cruise passengers.

Safety for both passengers and crew members on the high seas is a focus for our firm. Sure, several cruise companies, including Carnival Corp. (owner of Costa Cruises), have made promises to improve safety protocols and features on ships in the wake of the Concordia accident, but have they taken their claims seriously or were they just empty promises made in the hype of the accident?

A few months after the Concordia capsizing accident, which led to the deaths of 32 people, Carnival Corp. made all sorts of promises about upgrading ships and focusing on safety as a priority moving forward. The company said a multimillion-dollar project was underway to improve all ships in the Carnival fleet, but accidents were still happening and that multimillion-dollar project? Well, seems those funds went toward improving the size and entertainment features on the line’s ships.

Fast forward to a year after the Concordia crash and you have one of the highest publicized cruise ship accidents in history: the Carnival Triumph fire. Ironically, the fire occurred in a Carnival Corp. ship, after the company swore up and down it would improve onboard safety features. The fire was the result of several factors, but it all boiled down to a leak in a fuel hose – a leak which was predicted and left unfixed, despite letters sent to Triumph crew members warning of the dangers of the fuel hoses and suggesting improvements to reduce the chance of a fire.

While cruise ship accidents, crimes and fires are usually not given as much media attention as they deserve, this time, things finally began to change. The Triumph fire, which left around 4,000 people stuck in the Gulf of Mexico for days without sufficient food and in unsanitary conditions, was a turning point for maritime safety legislation. Though the U.S. government previously did not exercise much control over the cruise industry, the fire, coupled with the Concordia tragedy and the sheer fact that the industry conceals many of its mishaps, led U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and John “Jay” Rockefeller to introduce two new legislations to protect cruise passenger rights: The Cruise Ship Bill of Rights and the Cruise Passenger Protection Act of 2013.

The bill was created with the premise of increasing transparency in the industry and between cruise lines and the public. But while cruise lines responded to the legislation at first, we are already two weeks into the new year and tragic accidents are STILL happening.

The Miami Herald article delves into the idea that while some improvements have been made, most critics can agree that we still have a long, long way to go before we can consider the cruise industry “safe.”

“…Safety is a journey, it’s not a destination,” said Michael McGarry, senior vice president of public affairs for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). And we have to agree. There is always room for improvement and cruise lines always have the ability to keep introducing new technologies that will not only reduce the risk of accidents at sea or in port, but allow for faster assistance to victims in the face of tragedy.

While some accidents can honestly not be foreseen, those, such as the Costa Concordia incident, can be entirely prevented. The Concordia crashed into a giant rock off the coast of Giglio, Italy because the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, decided to make a last minute, unplanned change to the vessel’s itinerary in order to perform a “salute” and bring the ship closer to shore.

In the months since the accident, Costa has set up a fleet operation center to monitor all of its ships constantly from its headquarters, ensuring ships are following their itineraries at all times. The company also replaced the previous practice of allowing the captain to make all the final calls with a more team-based approach regarding the operation of cruise ships.

Sure, we can’t deny that some steps have been taken by Carnival – and other lines as well – to reduce the risk of accidents, but unfortunately, it’s just not enough. Especially because accidents continue to happen. This year already we’ve had several overboard accidents take place. Can we truly say cruise ship safety is a priority or is improving after these tragedies continue to occur?

“I think you’ve got to look at the specifics,” said Mr. Lipcon, when interviewed by the Miami Herald. “If you’re talking about overall, is it a safer situation? Probably a little bit — and a step in the right direction.”

In reality, Mr. Lipcon explains that the new Passenger Bill of Rights just puts into writing what cruise lines have always been obligated to do anyway.

“It’s a lot of window dressing,” he added.

In all honesty, all the legislation does is point out the inconsistencies of the industry. Sure, now that two major cruise ship accidents have been highly publicized by the media, now is when cruise lines are going to try to uphold the safety regulations they were always supposed to have abided by from the get go.

The one thing we can say that’s improving is the attention cruise ship accidents are now getting. The industry is no longer being allowed to sweep its problems under the proverbial rug. Instead, media outlets are targeting lines and exposing their lack of safety and other fallacies.

And we all know that the more negative press a cruise line gets, the less likely travelers are to book vacations with said line and the lower the revenue the line will make in turn.

Bottom line, we have seen improvements within the industry when it comes to safety, but we’ve still got a long, LONG way to go before we can say cruise lines have actually taken safety seriously. The proof is in the accident rate, and so far, we are not impressed. Cruise ship accidents are still happening at a catastrophic rate and until those numbers begin to drop, we urge anyone taking a cruise vacation to exercise caution while out in the high seas.