Going Over the Edge on Cruise Ships

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Why – and How – Do People Fall Off Ocean Liners?

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A new high school graduate plunges into the Gulf of Mexico while on a celebratory cruise with friends and his parents. A man tumbles over a rail on a cruise ship as it returns to port. A woman goes overboard while on a cruise with her husband to mark her 50th birthday.

All three incidents took place within the past four weeks on cruise ships in the Gulf of Mexico. How do these things happen?

There’s no one factor, according to those who watch the cruise industry.  “I think some of is related to crime and some of it is related to drinking. Normally, it’s because they were doing something crazy,” said Charles Lipcon, whose Miami law firm, Lipcon, Margulies & Alsina, represents passengers and crew members in lawsuits against cruise lines.

“Usually, the cruise line is not responsible.”  On May 24, Bruce O’Krepki, 18, of Hammond, La., went overboard from the Carnival ship Fantasy about 150 miles southwest of Tampa, Fla. He was on a post-graduation cruise chaperoned by his parents. The Coast Guard spent two days searching a 5,300-square-mile area for him, but he wasn’t found.

On Monday, the Coast Guard was called into action again after Michelle Vilborg, 50, of Bay Minette, Ala., went missing from the Holiday, another Carnival ship. A fellow passenger reported hearing a splash as the ship was about 75 miles southwest of Pensacola, Fla. Rescuers suspended the search for Vilborg on Wednesday.

The third overboard incident, which also happened Monday, had a happier ending. Larry Miller, 46, was found clinging to a buoy after he fell from a cruise ship that was returning to port in Tampa. Miller said he slipped while climbing a railing so he could get a better view of the scenery.

Miller was a passenger on the Carnival ship Inspiration.  In an e-mail message, Vance Gulliksen, a spokesman for Carnival, said the cruise line’s ships are “extremely safe” and that “it is virtually impossible for a guest to simply fall off a cruise ship.” All Carnival ships have 44-inch railings and uniformed security guards on patrol 24 hours a day, he said.  Carnival and other cruise lines don’t release information on how many people go overboard from their ships, and the Cruise Lines International Association, which represents 24 providers serving North America, also declined to release such data. The association stressed, however, that passenger safety was its top priority.

According to a tally kept by an independent observer, at least 12 people have gone overboard from cruise ships so far this year. Seven of those cases involved Carnival ships. Last year, there were nine overboard reports, two of which involved Carnival.

Those numbers are from Ross Klein, a sociology professor in Canada who has written four books on the cruise industry. On his Web site, cruisejunkie.com, Ross tracks all sorts of cruise-related issues, ranging from flu outbreaks to labor and environmental practices.

Klein said he gathers his information from media reports, as well as cruise passengers and crew members.

“I think in some [overboard] cases, the cruise lines are at fault. In some cases, they aren’t,” he said. “There are people who are stupid. There are people who leave suicide notes. But those certainly are not the majority of cases.”  There are no statistics on how many of the cases involve alcohol, but Klein, like Lipcon, said he believed drinking plays a role. Klein suggested that cruise lines could do a better job of training their staffs to serve alcohol responsibly. They could also expand surveillance systems and boost their security staffs, he said.

Klein also expressed concern about cases in which people just vanish from cruise ships without a trace.

“I think there area a number of incidents where people disappear under mysterious circumstances,” he said.

Over the past few years, such disappearances have led to several congressional hearings on cruise ship safety and security. One of the most sensational cruise mysteries was that of George Allen Smith, who vanished from a Royal Caribbean ship in 2005 while honeymooning with his wife. His family accused Royal Caribbean of trying to cover up his killing.

No charges were filed, but the cruise line reached a financial settlement with his estate. Earlier this month, 2,200 pages of court documents were released in his case, the Hartford Courant reported.

Merrian Carver, 40, also disappeared from a cruise ship, and her fate remains a mystery five years later. Carver embarked on a Royal Caribbean Alaska cruise in 2004, and her cabin attendant noticed that her room appeared unused after the second day of the trip. But the cruise line didn’t alert her family that she was missing. It took her parents weeks to learn that she’d even gone on the cruise.

The tragedy turned her father, Kendall Carver, into an activist for cruise safety and led him to found the advocacy group International Cruise Victims.  Carver, a former insurance executive, has spent the past several years pushing the cruise industry to be open about the accidents and crimes that occur on ships, and to improve security. Those efforts may pay off soon. He plans to travel to Washington next week because the Senate is expected to begin marking up a bill that would require cruise ships to bolster security, make crime reports public and train personnel in collecting and preserving evidence from on-board crime scenes.

“Unless there is legislation, this story is going to keep happening,” Carver said.