When cruises go bad: Practical legal tips at sea

Rights, News

Going on a cruise this summer? You won’t be alone: twenty-three million people worldwide went on a cruise in 2015, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. Unfortunately, it isn’t always smooth sailing. Here are some common problems faced by cruise passengers, some of the legal challenges that come with those problems, and some practical tips.

Medical issues

Getting sick during a vacation is never fun. Getting sick or injured on a boat in the middle of the ocean is even worse. Cruise ships do have medical professionals on board, but often those people are independent contractors, not cruise line employees. This doesn’t necessarily mean that quality medical care is compromised, but it does make things more complicated if the care isn’t up to snuff or negligent.

Norovirus, a particularly contagious gastrointestinal bug, can spread through the close quarters of a cruise ship like wildfire. Cruise lines stock public areas with lots of hand sanitizer, but that isn’t always enough. Passengers on norovirus infected voyages have filed suits claiming negligence in the cleaning and disinfection of affected ships.

Travelers also need to understand what their current medical insurance will and won’t cover during the cruise and in any ports of call. Travel insurance policies can help alleviate concerns about medical issues before, during, or after a cruise. Some policies will even cover helicopter evacuation or airlift back to the United States in case of emergency.

Criminal Issues

A cruise ship, particularly some of today’s massive super ships, are floating cities, and cities have all kinds of people, including some bad apples. Unfortunately, passengers fall victim to the same sorts of wrongdoings that happen back home, crimes like theft and sexual assault.

Many passengers don’t know how to report a crime and, in the past, cruise lines have not always been helpful or transparent about reported incidents. This changed with the passage of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA) of 2010. The CVSSA, among other things, mandates that ships monitor passenger safety via closed circuit TV, requires public reporting of cruise ship crime allegations, and requires each cruise line to provide a publicly available security guide.

The CVSSA isn’t particularly popular with the cruise lines. Royal Caribbean, in the introduction to their Safety & Security Guide, points out, “This public reporting requirement is unique to the cruise industry, as there is no similar requirement for any other commercial industry, including hotels and airlines.”

Jurisdictional issues get complicated at sea. The FBI maintains jurisdiction over any incidents that occur in US territorial waters and for any incidents that occur in international waters where the victim or alleged perpetrator is a US national. (This falls under what is known as the Special Maritime and Territorial Jurisdiction of the United States.) If something happens on shore, the local authorities would handle it, but a passenger should always report the incident to the cruise ship security officers as well.

Trip interruptions

Royal Caribbean made lots of headlines early in 2015 with two separate, ill-fated voyages of the Anthem of the Seas. In the first incident, the ship sailed into a massive storm, causing injuries to passengers and crew. During the second voyage, several passengers became ill (reportedly from norovirus). In both cases, the ship returned to port early, and the cruise line went into damage control, offering refunds and discounts on future bookings. It is important to remember that passengers who accept such accommodations for an interrupted vacation are often waiving their right to sue the cruise line.

Legal challenges to legal challenges

Suing a cruise line is not an easy prospect. In addition to the jurisdictional issues discussed above, the cruise contract, which many passengers never bother to read, has lots of fine print. It will likely include a choice of law provision, specifying that disputes be settled under the laws of a particular state – one that tends to be friendly toward the industry. Cruise contracts also typically contain shortened statutes of limitations.

A passenger with a problem should seek the advice of a lawyer who specializes in maritime litigation. As Ira H. Leesfield, a senior partner at Leesfield Scolaro, a firm that specializes in cruise line litigation, wrote to the Miami Herald, “The cruise industry has built in their own protection and insulated themselves from equal and fair treatment applied to other wrongdoers.”

Quick tips before (and after) the cruise

  • Read and understand the cruise contract.
  • Understand your medical insurance and assess your travel insurance needs.
  • Notify the cruise line, any onboard security officers, and local officials or the FBI immediately when something criminal happens.
  • Keep and save all documentation of problems. Take pictures. Make contemporaneous notes.
  • Get specialized help if you need it.