Cruise ship passengers share many of the same hazards that people on land face. Such passengers may be injured by other passengers, crew members or dangerous conditions aboard ship. These passengers may also be assaulted, robbed or raped while onboard. Cruise ships and their passengers even face external dangers, such as from pirates. Since 2003, armed robbers using assault rifles and rocket launchers in high-speed boats have increasingly attacked cruise lines and robbed passengers off the coast of Somalia.
Generally, a cruise ship owes its passengers a duty of safe transportation. Passengers who are injured aboard ship may file suit against the owner of the cruise ship, the company that chartered the cruise ship, the company that operated the cruise ship, and the company that sold the ticket as an agent of the cruise ship owner, charterer, or operator. However, such claims may be subject to certain cruise ship laws that affect when and where the passenger may file suit, as well as the applicable law.
Today, almost all the ocean cruise lines use passenger ships registered under flags of various foreign countries. Each ship is subject to the vessel inspection laws of the country in which it is registered. Additionally, for cruise ships that take on passengers at U.S. ports, the U.S. Coast Guard requires these ships to meet the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). SOLAS and other international regulations strictly regulate crewing and crew competency, fire protection, firefighting and lifesaving equipment, navigation safety, watercraft integrity and stability, vessel control, safety management and environmental protection. On U.S. passenger vessels, licensed individuals and crew must comply with Coast Guard regulations setting standards for experience and training.
Duty of Care to Passengers
Cruise ships departing from U.S. ports are deemed “common carriers,” which means that they owe their passengers a heightened duty of care in protecting them from physical harm and ensuring they arrive at their destinations safely.
Disappearance From Cruise Ship
When a cruise line receives a report of a missing passenger, the company has a duty to perform a reasonable search and rescue. If the person is not quickly found on board the vessel, then the vessel must return to the last location where the person was seen. People do fall overboard from cruise ships for a variety of reasons but have often been rescued, even after hours have gone by. If a cruise line fails to perform a reasonable search and rescue, it may be held liable for the passenger's disappearance.
Filing Suit for Cruise Ship Injuries
Cruise ship passengers who suffer injuries or are the victims of a crime may sue to recover for damages, including medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. However, the court in which suit must be filed may be governed by the terms on the cruise ship ticket.
Most cruise ship tickets contain a forum selection clause and a choice of law clause. These are usually printed in small type on the back of the ticket, and specify the state in which a passenger may sue the cruise line, as well as the law that will be applied in such case. Cruise lines typically require passengers to bring suit for any injuries occurring on the ship in either Seattle, Washington; Miami, Florida; or Los Angeles, California, depending upon where the cruise line is based. Failure to follow the rules on the ticket, which acts as a contract between a passenger and a cruise line, may result in a court refusing to hear the suit. A passenger may object to the suit being heard in a court far from his or her home state, but such challenges usually fail.
The cruise ticket may also require an injured passenger to provide notice of the injury to the cruise line within a certain amount of time, usually within six months of injury. Although the normal statute of limitations (or time to bring suit) for admiralty and maritime matters is three years, the cruise ticket may designate that all lawsuits against the cruise line be brought in Miami under Florida law, which only has a one-year statute of limitations. Courts generally enforce these provisions. If the passenger does not meet the deadline for suing the cruise line, the court may dismiss the suit.
Injured Cruise Ship Employees
The Jones Act covers most cruise ship employees who suffer injuries due to negligence by their employer or a coworker. They may be able to recover damages for medical bills, lost wages, lost earning capacity, and pain and suffering.
Most cruise lines register their ships with foreign countries and fly foreign flags. As such, the law of the country of registration may apply to events on such cruise ships. Additionally, for cruises departing from a U.S. port, the laws of the state where the ship departed, U.S. federal law, and various international treaties may apply as well.
Special maritime jurisdiction may apply pursuant to 18 U.S. Code Section 7 when an offense is committed by or against a U.S. national in a place outside the jurisdiction of any country, and cover foreign vessels that have a United States arrival or departure port.
Florida Statute 910.006 offers Florida law enforcement special maritime jurisdiction when an offense is committed and the victim is resident of Florida; the suspect on board the ship is a resident or citizen of Florida; more than half the revenue passengers aboard the ship originally embarked and plan to finally disembark in a Florida port; or the crime could have caused a "substantial effect" within Florida.