Can Cruise Ships Be Held Responsible for Passenger Injuries?

By Hardwick & Pendergast, P.S. on November 17, 2017


Seattle is a popular launching point for many of the world’s biggest cruise lines. It’s the home base for Holland America, and sees arrivals and departures from Carnival, Norwegian, Celebrity, and Royal Caribbean International. With so many cruise ships in Seattle ports and Puget Sound, you’d think the issue of cruise ship safety comes up a lot.

But it usually doesn’t—until someone gets hurt.

Here’s the bad news: cruise ship injuries can be extremely complicated to litigate, and a number of factors come into play, some of them international.

If you plan to be a passenger, you need to realize that a slip-and-fall accident on a cruise ship is not handled the same way as a slip-and-fall in a grocery store.

Cruise Ships Are Common Carriers

Any cruise ship or passenger liner that departs from a U.S. port is considered a common carrier, according to the Shipping Act of 1984. Common carriers, which include trains, metros, airlines, ferries, and sometimes even amusement parks, are expected to provide their passengers with a heightened duty of care in terms of their personal safety and the safety of their belongings, from departure to arrival at their destination. This means cruise ships are supposed to warn their passengers of any potential hazards and exercise all due caution to safely transport them during the voyage.

In the event of an injury, the affected passengers do have the right to file suit against the owner of the ship, the company that chartered or operates the ship, and even the agent that sold the ticket. (Cruise ships do have passengers sign waivers, but the waivers should not apply if owner or employee negligence results in a passenger’s injury or death, according to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.)

The cruise company is largely responsible for the actions of its employees, particularly if the employee was not properly trained, had exhibited signs of misbehavior in the past, or was following unclear or ambiguous guidelines.

What About International Cruise Ships?

While the “common carrier” standard applies to a variety of industries, cruise lines pose a unique challenge. This is because nearly every cruise ship operating out of Seattle today is registered under the flag of a foreign country. These ships are subject to different laws than American ships, even though a company like Holland America itself is headquartered in Seattle!

Thus, every cruise ship is subject to inspection from its country of origin. This can make adjudicating a dispute that occurred on board extremely complicated. Different laws apply depending on whether the ship was at port or at sea in international waters. In fact, there’s a troublesome caveat if an accident occurs under conflicting laws and jurisdictions: according to the Athens Convention, “the Carrier shall be entitled to invoke whichever provisions provide the greatest limitations and immunities to the Carrier.” In other words, the cruise ship company gets to choose which laws apply!

Also, any cruise ship that accepts passengers at U.S. ports is subject to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). These guidelines and regulations are quite strict when it comes to crew competency, safety equipment, navigation, ship integrity, management, and environmental protection, but cases in which injuries are involved cannot be tried in Washington State courtrooms. In addition, most cruise ship lines include limitations on passenger claims in their contracts—for example, a notice of claim must usually be filed within six months, and a lawsuit within one year!

Let’s not forget DOHSA. The Death on the High Seas by Wrongful Act was enacted by Congress and applies to accidents that take place in international waters. “Whenever the death of a person shall be caused by wrongful act, neglect, or default on the high seas,” that person’s surviving family members can file a wrongful death claim in U.S. court. However, recovery is limited to money damages; the case must be brought within three years; and contributory negligence does apply—if the deceased in any way contributed to his or her own death, the amount of recovery will be reduced for the family.

A Recent Cruise Lawsuit

Let’s take a look at a successful claim. In 2015, a federal jury in Seattle awarded a victim $21.5 million in damages after he suffered a brain injury from being hit in the head by a sliding glass door on a Holland America cruise ship. During the case, it was determined that dozens of other passengers had previously been injured in similar incidents, showing that the company was fully aware of the danger the sliding doors posed, yet failed to act to protect the safety of its passengers. But negligence isn’t always so obvious.

The Innate Danger of Cruise Ships

Cruise ships have restaurants, swimming pools, casinos, fitness equipment, and even extreme activities such as bungee jumping. They are practically self-contained towns. The truth is that because of the size of the ships, and their isolation, a variety of accidents can occur. Passengers can fall on a slippery deck or be knocked about by the motion of the waves; defective equipment (like doors or hatches) can open or shut suddenly and slice fingers, and improper safety equipment can turn “man overboard” into a great big disaster.

Moreover, passengers can be subject to rogue employees. Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse have been reported, both involving employees of the cruise line and other passengers. It is the responsibility of the cruise company to ensure the safety of all passengers by providing an environment that is free from these dangers! If negligence by the cruise ship’s owner or employees leads to an injury, then hurt passengers have the right to be fully compensated.

While you may think that you have no recourse following a personal injury at sea, there are laws that can protect you. It’s important to act quickly and seek the advice of an experienced lawyer to learn about your legal rights and options. For a free consultation, call Hardwick & Pendergast, P.S., at (888) 228-3860.

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Written by Joseph Pendergast, this book is designed to help people who have suffered a personal injury understand their rights and the steps to take to be sure they get the compensation they deserve.

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