By Arlene Satchell
Of the millions of passengers who annually travel aboard cruise ships worldwide, the number of them who drown in on-board swimming pools is extraordinarily small, the industry says.
But in the wake of highly publicized drownings or near-drownings of children in recent years, more cruise lines are stationing lifeguards aboard their ships.
Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International are the most recent of the large operators this year to add trained lifeguards to enhance pool safety.
Over the years, cruise lines have been slow to retain lifeguards to oversee their ships’ pools, citing comparatively low incident rates with land-based accidents and existing company programs designed to ensure safety.
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“Cruise lines manage swimming pools with a continual focus on the safety of guests and crew,” according to a statement from Cruise Lines International Association, a Washington, D.C.-based industry trade group. “While swimming pool drownings are always tragic, incidents on cruise ships are a tiny fraction of corresponding rates at similar venues on land. Annually, data shows that on average there are two drownings out of 24 million passengers carried by cruise lines.”
But maritime lawyers who serve as safety advocates argue that the deployment of lifeguards is past due for an industry that aggressively markets shipboard vacations to adults who frequently take their children along for the ride.
While his clients recognize that parental responsibility plays a significant role in monitoring children in cruise ship pools, Miami attorney Michael A. Winkleman said it “also coincides with corporate responsibility of the cruise line doing the right thing.”
“If it’s a pool with a kid-friendly policy, it needs to have a lifeguard,” he said.
Previously, Disney Cruise Line was the only major operator to deploy them, which it did in late 2013 following a near-drowning of a four-year-old boy in a pool aboard the Disney Fantasy.
Norwegian’s plans initially call for adding lifeguards on its four largest ships — Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Epic– by late June, spokeswoman Vanessa Picariello said. Lifeguards will be poolside fleetwide by early 2018.
(Norwegian Cruise Line) The lifeguards will be responsible for monitoring the ships’ family pools during scheduled opening hours, the Miami-based operator said. And uniformed “first responders” will be trained and certified by the American Red Cross in lifesaving rescue techniques.
Norwegian has stationed pool attendants on its largest ships since 2015, but is taking the additional step to “ensure the safety of our youngest guests,” said Andy Stuart, president and CEO, in a statement. “While parents are always the first line of supervision when it comes to water safety, we felt it was important to provide this added measure.”
Rival Royal Caribbean began adding lifeguards to some ships earlier this year and expects to have them aboard all of them by June, spokeswoman Lyan Sierra-Caro said.
The lifeguards are part of a water safety campaign that includes providing life vests and education programs for young children and teenagers.
Royal Caribbean’s lifeguards are being trained in partnership with StarGuard Elite, a Windermere-based aquatic risk prevention and lifeguard training company.
“This is another major victory for families that have lost or nearly lost children in cruise ship drownings,” Winkleman said.
He believes the new measures are partly due to the “several brave families that have stepped forward to hold the cruise lines accountable.”
A 1920 federal law called the Death on the High Seas Act, which was intended to promote U.S. maritime commerce, has long provided an economic shield for cruise lines by limiting the monetary damages they could face when a death of a non-wage earner such as a child or retiree occurs on a ship, Winkleman said.
“Kids and retired people do not work and don’t have people dependent on them typically, thus their damages are extremely limited,” he said. And since the law does not account for damages for pain and suffering, in most cases cruise lines are liable only for funeral expenses.
However, several lawsuits against cruise lines in recent years — some ending in major financial settlements — have helped to shine a spotlight on tragedies and shift consumer sentiment to press cruise lines for more preventative measures, Winkleman said.
Lawmakers in Washington have been lobbying for more consumer protections at sea in the wake of high-profile cruise ship accidents, some involving the deaths of passengers and crew.
Last Wednesday, the Cruise Passenger Protection Act was introduced into the House of Representatives and a companion bill in the Senate, with the goal of strengthening passenger safety.
The proposed act does not specifically call for the placement of lifeguards aboard vessels. But it does seek improved shipboard medical standards and would hold cruise companies responsible for deaths at sea, according to lawmakers.
Since 2013, Winkleman’s law firm Lipcon, Margulies & Winkleman, has tracked at least 10 child drownings or near-deaths on cruise ships. It represents or has represented four families that sued cruise lines.
He cited one lawsuit involving the drowning of a 10-year old girl aboard the Norwegian Gem in 2015, which ended with a confidential settlement. Two other active cases involved the drowning death of an eight-year-old boy aboard Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas in December 2015 and the near-drowning of a four-year-old on its Oasis of the Seas ship in January of the same year.
Even though three major cruise lines now have lifeguards in place, more work needs to be done, he said.
“Carnival [Cruise Line] at this point does not have lifeguards on its ships,” Winkleman noted.
The Doral-based cruise operator carried nearly 800,000 children on its 25 cruise ships in 2016, company president Christine Duffy said at a recent industry conference.in Fort Lauderdale.
At the time, Duffy was unveiling details for a Dr. Seuss WaterWorks park that will debut aboard the Carnival Horizon when it launches next year.
When asked whether Carnival plans to add pool lifeguards, Duffy said: “At Carnival, vigilance and awareness, we believe, is proven to be the best means for ensuring safety when people are using water facilities, whether that’s the swimming pool or the water park.”
She said the Dr, Seuss attraction will have three full-time attendants who will be trained in pool safety, CPR and first aid.
“At this point we believe that the responsibility for pool safety must be with the parents on board as well as our employees,” Duffy said. “We’ve invested a lot into a safety program and do provide ongoing and regular training for the team that’s up on those decks.”
Carnival has experienced water-related onboard incidents in recent years.
Last October, a two-year-old nearly drowned on Carnival Splendor. In 2013, a six-year-old drowned in a pool aboard Carnival Victory, according to the Winkleman law firm.
“We helped to bring change at Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, and Carnival is the last hold-out,” Winkleman said. “We need to [keep] the pressure on.”