every turn in the past two months, Royal Caribbean International
has found itself fighting round after round of accusations and
aggressive press coverage about disappearing passengers and
shipboard crime. And if lawyers and lawmakers have their way,
public attention to those issues is likely to increase in the
national television, Richard Fain, Royal Caribbeans CEO, has
disputed accusations that the company was insensitive and negligent
in its actions following the suspicious disappearance last summer
of Connecticut honeymooner George Smith.
was preceded and followed in other venues by the companys lawyers,
public affairs executives, the head of fleet operations and the
captain of the ship from which Smith disappeared.
Much of the recent
media coverage was fueled by a congressional hearing in December
into questions about shipboard safety and industry practices
stemming from the Smith disappearance. The issue is expected to be
revived in early March, when more family members of missing cruise
passengers are expected to testify in a second series of
congressional inquiries that will embrace wider issues of maritime
law, jurisdictional conflicts and regulation of cruise
officials say they are confident about their safety practices,
reporting procedures and treatment of customers. But sources within
the industry also say that when the smoke clears, the U.S. mass
market cruise industry, which has seen substantial growth over the
past decade, could end up facing tighter regulatory scrutiny and
increased consumer liability.
high-profile disappearances such as the cases involving Smith and,
later, Merriam Carver, a passenger who went missing from a Royal
Caribbean cruise in Alaska, have been painful to the industry,
cruise sales have so far shown no signs of withering under bad
In fact, the cruise
industry has used the opportunity to reinforce its claim --
supported by FBI and Coast Guard data -- that cruising is among the
safest of travel options. Of the tens of millions of Americans who
took cruises in the past five years, only 13 have been
Still, the growing
tide of negative publicity is creating potential political problems
for the industry as it is forced to answer questions about how
cruise ships that dock in U.S. ports are regulated, and by
The cruise industry
has a great deal at stake in the growing debate, according to
Thomas Dickerson, a New York State Supreme Court justice and author
of Travel Law, a widely cited guide to legal issues related to
travel. Dickerson said cruise lines have long benefited from
treaties and laws that limit their liability to passengers or
families who seek compensation for accidents, crimes or other
incidents at sea.
protects cruise lines; it does not protect consumers, said
Dickerson, a former trial lawyer. The bottom line is that maritime
law is pro-cruise line, and that comes out in a lot of different
cruise operations in the U.S. is governed primarily by complex
maritime laws, though there are some other agencies -- most
recently, the Department of Homeland Security -- that also affect
operators. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for
example, requires reporting of health issues and compiles
statistics and sanitation ratings on cruise lines. Reports of
accidents on the high seas are required by the U.S. Coast Guard for
all commercial shipping, and security regulations enacted after
9/11 have increased requirements on reporting passenger and crew
identifications at U.S. ports.
executives have testified that they meticulously report all
criminal incidents at sea to the FBI and to appropriate law
enforcement agencies in the country under whose jurisdiction they
sail. The incidents they report range from disappearances to
allegations of rape, robbery, drug trafficking, assault and
But some federal lawmakers
have expressed skepticism about whether all this reporting, both
voluntary and mandated, add up to an accurate picture. They are
also asking if Congress needs to revisit jurisdictional treaties
and traditions that currently leave U.S. citizens subject to
foreign laws in disputes or incidents.
president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, which
represents most of the major players in the cruise industry, said
he hopes congressional inquiries will pursue the truth as opposed
to the perceptions created by media attention.
I believe that
there is a very complex, overarching regulation of the cruise ship
industry today, dependent upon the jurisdiction where the ships are
located, Crye said. I believe that people who go on cruises are
very safe, and I believe that any objective look at the record of
the cruise industry will come to the same conclusions.
Perceived ideas that the cruise industry is loosely regulated and
that [lawmakers] need to do something about it would not survive an
objective look at the cruise industry today.
A web of
typically operate under flags of jurisdictions that range from the
Bahamas to countries in Africa and other destinations around the
world. It is a practice that can routinely put the cruise operator,
and anyone alleging crimes or negligence, under the laws of either
the nation whose flag they fly or the country where the company
maintains its incorporation.
In addition, the
criminal and civil laws of countries being visited may also apply,
creating a complicated jurisdictional maze for passengers in need
of any kind of legal protections. That situation is prompting
lawmakers to take a closer look at what laws apply when something
bad happens to a U.S. passenger on a cruise.
investigators now say they are looking for a more accurate and
complete picture of how often allegations of criminal acts (sexual
assault ranks highest on the list of reported crimes)
disappearances or injuries occur aboard cruise ships.
Clearly, not all of
the debate is likely to be reasoned and rational. Emotional issues
raised by Smiths disappearance plus other cases that are expected
to come up in the congressional hearings could drive legislation
seeking tighter controls on cruise lines -- something the industry
wants to avoid.
and experts in maritime law say that similar consumer-protection
issues involving cruise lines have surfaced hundreds of times in
state court proceedings in the past 10 years, but without the
emotionally charged national spotlight fueled by the Smith
passengers have sued cruise lines in U.S. courts for incidents
ranging from assault to disappearances to spider bites, plaintiffs
lawyers complain that their clients rights have been narrowly
limited. Foreign and U.S. maritime laws, these lawyers say,
typically protect cruise lines more than they protect
Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who called
the initial hearing in December in response to the Smith case, said
they remain concerned about how cruise lines deal with passenger
safety and security.
When something like
this occurs, Shays said, you begin asking who owns the cruise line?
Where are they based? Where are they coming from? Where are they
flagged? Where are the employees coming from?
Those are all
issues we have never really addressed in Congress. We have looked
at environmental issues, but not taken a good look at security.
Someone has to take the lead here, because a lot of Americans
travel on cruise ships.
In public comments
and testimony, cruise line officials say Congress should be pleased
with the industrys safety record. But Shays, who became involved
because George Smiths family is a constituent, said he needs more
information before deciding whether to examine cruise line
regulation and jurisdictional questions more closely.
practice maritime law say that cruise passengers are routinely
required to sign liability waivers that restrict their right to sue
cruise lines for negligence or injury. The waivers, these lawyers
say, are presented to passengers in the form of tiny print on the
backs of tickets, similar to the legal disclaimers on the backs of
some airline tickets, and typically limit damage claims against
cruise lines to economic loss.
accidents reported differently
Nancy Nelson, a
Jacksonville, Fla., travel agent, is among former passengers
demanding more openness and accountability on the part of cruise
lines. Nelson says Royal Caribbean was uncooperative when she tried
to find out what happened to her husband on a diving excursion in
Nelson, who once
specialized in cruise sales, had won a free trip aboard a Royal
Caribbean ship to the Bahamas in a sales promotion. She and Bob
Nelson, her husband of 32 years, sailed in November 2001. While she
was shopping in Nassau, Bob failed to surface on a dive excursion.
No one ever saw him again.
In her lawsuit
against the cruise line, Nelson alleges that her husband was an
experienced diver and that he was abandoned under water by a dive
master during an excursion that went wrong. When the dive was
aborted because of difficult seas, other divers were recovered, the
suit alleges, but Nelson was left behind when the dive boat left
the area, and no head count was taken.
The suit asserts
that the same incident was also a near disaster for others who had
trouble getting back to the dive boat in rough seas. Nelsons
lawsuit, filed by Miami lawyer Greg Anderson, who usually defends
cruise lines in liability claims, also alleges that rescue efforts
Anderson said he
took Nancy Nelsons case because he felt she had been mistreated by
Royal Caribbean after it resisted her efforts to get information
and help related to her husbands disappearance. Anderson said he
thought the case offered a potential test of maritime law, which he
says severely restricts passengers from holding cruise lines
responsible for accidents, crimes and disappearances.
Caribbeans policy is to report all disappearances to the FBI, the
company did not report Nelsons disappearance. Michael Sheehan, a
spokesman for Royal Caribbean, said that was because the case was
treated as an accidental drowning rather than an unexplained
disappearance, and thus the cruise line reported it to the Coast
Guard for the purposes of a belated rescue attempt.
Sheehan said Bob
Nelson was not actually a missing person. We knew he had been the
victim of a tragic accident, so there was no question of whether a
crime had been committed. Under such circumstances, he said, an FBI
report would have been unwarranted.
drownings aside, Captain Bill Wright, who heads up Royal Caribbeans
fleet operations, and Greg Purdy, the lines security director, both
said it is the companys policy to report missing passengers to law
overboard, Purdy said, maritime responsibilities for reporting are
done by maritime casualty reports, and a portion of that form asks
that you characterize the nature of the incident. And if that
person overboard is a U.S. citizen, it is also reported to the
If it is a U.S.
citizen who is missing and off the ship, who presumably fell
overboard, we would inform the FBI, he said.
Wright and Purdy
said cruise lines are held to strict standards that dont exist for
other parts of the travel industry, such as hotels, resorts or even
airlines. Purdy noted that cruise lines also verify the identity of
every passenger and provide government officials with manifests and
photos of everyone on board, including crew members.
of incidents, Royal Caribbean officials said, reflects an
industrywide commitment to passenger safety and security and makes
reporting of incidents a logical extension of companies public
In the Nelson case,
the trial court eventually ruled in favor of Royal Caribbean,
upholding the cruise lines liability waivers. Rather than prolong
the case through an appeal, the company settled for $75,000,
Anderson said. He complained Royal Caribbean dragged the case out
by failing to provide reports about Bob Nelsons disappearance,
resulting in two years of litigation and discovery.
Its still hard to
talk about this after all I have been through, Nancy Nelson said.
But I want to talk to anyone who wants to listen at this point,
because people need to know what happened to me and what can happen
Without the reports
from Royal Caribbean, she said, I couldnt even get access to his
death benefits for three years. Its been a horrible and frustrating
Sheehan declined to
comment on Nelsons allegations involving delayed
Anderson offers the
case as evidence that maritime law must be changed.
Its a scandal,
really he said. No rational human being with any sense of
compassion could look at the Death on High Seas Act and general
maritime law as it applies to passengers and say that significant
changes do not need to be made.
Anderson said he
hopes further congressional hearings will raise some difficult
questions for cruise lines.
These maritime laws
come from a time when America was trying to promote shipping and
compete with the British and the Dutch, Anderson said. Most of the
statutes date to 100 years ago [and were] never designed for an age
of modern cruise ships with multiport agendas, carrying thousands
of people on purely pleasure trips.
The good news for
plaintiffs lawyers -- and the bad news for cruise lines -- he said,
is that the federal courts understand the problems and have carved
out exceptions where they can.
exceptions is the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring cruise
ships docking in U.S. ports to abide by the Americans With
Disabilities Act. And lower courts in Florida recently ruled that
cruise lines can be held liable for claims related to sexual
assault of passengers by crew members, a decision that is forcing
closer background checks for workers.
Anderson said that
in each case, the cruise companies very aggressively ... are
protecting the law that protects them, and that leaves consumers
with little recourse.
People who are
getting killed, injured, raped, you name it, are your average
vacationer, and it usually only happens to one or maybe two at a
time, Anderson said. They are not mass disasters, and so far no
senators daughter has been raped ... and no large political
contributor has been killed on a cruise ship. Until that happens,
Congress probably will not act to protect passengers.
Sheehan refused to
discuss recent rulings or settlements, and Fain declined to be
interviewed for this article. But the ICCLs view of the maritime
laws in question is that they have lasted in some cases for
centuries not because of lobbying or other political pressures but
because they work.
Maritime law is the
original international law, and it has built up over 200 years,
said the ICCLs Crye.
Some things may be
antiquated, and some things get added all the time. Because it is
international law, it may be more conservative in some respects
than some of the recent statutes in this country, but nothing is
there specifically for the cruise ship industry.
Moreover, he said,
the cruise lines liability is determined not just by maritime laws
but more frequently by simple contract law.
Just as with an
airline, or bus line, there is a contract for carriage, and it
stipulates that you may be sued, Crye said. And the same is true
for the cruise industry. You cant read the print on airline
tickets, but it is there.
compiled a report for the New York Bar Association in 2004 listing
litigation brought against the cruise industry under maritime law,
concludes that passengers should make sure they read the fine
skeptical about assurances that cruise lines report all crimes
against U.S. citizens to the FBI, to other jurisdictions and to all
appropriate agencies. He said he wants more information before
determining if additional hearings by his House Subcommittee on
National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations are
warranted and whether more cruise oversight is needed
One of the issues I
want to understand is how good a security system do companies have
on these ships, Shays said. Some of these ships have 2,000 to 3,000
people onboard, and I think it is important to know what
qualifications their security folks have. Do they know how to
investigate, interrogate and protect the crime scene? I think we
are going to invite the cruise lines to come back and talk to us
investigation might ultimately lead remains to be seen, Shays
It may be
government action is needed; it may involve treaties, multilateral
or bilateral. It may be just getting the industry to toughen
standards a bit and have some uniformity, he said.
broadly dispute suspicions that incidents of potential
embarrassment to cruise lines are under-reported.
The U.S. Coast
Guard did a comprehensive safety review of cruise lines in 1995,
some 500 pages of analysis, and their opinion was that the cruise
industry is among the safest forms of transportation you will find
anywhere, said Crye.
In addition, Crye
said, cruise lines have been not only accurate but diligent about
reporting incidents, accidents and criminal allegations, and that
data captured by the FBI, which opened 305 cases involving all
commercial shipping in the past five years, show relatively few
incidents directly related to ships carrying passengers.
The cases they have
opened in the past five years are a pretty good record of what has
occurred, Crye said. But even if there was a serious crime
involving a U.S. citizen that occurred on board a cruise ship and
was not reported to FBI by the cruise industry, it would be
reported by someone else, you can be sure.
reporter Dan Luzadder, send e-mail to [email protected].