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Brett Rivkind
Brett Rivkind
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Cruise Ship Industry Safety Addressed by Congress

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When I first learned that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation was a holding a hearing to address the cruise ship industry’s safety and environmental regulations, and what lessons could be taken away after the Costa Concordia disaster, I was somewhat skeptical. See my blog regarding why.

The hearing I discussed was held on Wednesday, February 29, 2012. As I mentioned in my blog about the upcoming hearing date, two survivors from the Costa Concordia were finally allowed to testify at the hearing. However, the hearing was composed of two panels of witnesses from the cruise ship industry. As expected, it is reported that most of the hearing involved accolades and praises for the cruise line industry for a great overall safety record, as well as their role in creating jobs and contributing to the economy. As I wrote in my blog the Law of the Sea, the hearing was spearheaded by Republican John Mika out of Florida. I had run into him previously when I testified at prior Congressional Hearings regarding cruise ship safety. It was apparent at that time that he was a friend of the cruise ship industry, and a stout defender of the industry. It appears nothing has changed from when I testified as a maritime expert in the prior Congressional Hearings.

There is an interesting newspaper article entitled “Congressional Hearing on Cruise-Ship Safety turns into Love-Fest for Industry”, discussing how the hearings ended up being a big arena to praise the cruise ship industry in times when everybody is looking at the industry disfavorably. In my blog, Law of the Sea, where I titled the articleDoes Media and Public Relations Campaign of Cruise Line Industry Include Congressional Hearings?, I anticipated that this hearing was going to be nothing more than a publicity stunt for the cruise ship industry, in cooperation with their friend, Republican John Mika.

It also turned out that another friend of the cruise ship industry, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, from Jacksonville, stood up for the cruise ship industry also. She described the disaster as simply an isolated incident that was the fault of the captain and unlikely to ever occur again. “We shouldn’t in vilify the entire [cruise] industry because of the reckless actions of one rogue employee” Rep. Corrine Brown said.

Representative Brown, along with Mika, again emphasized the importance of the cruise industry in Florida. This is exactly what happened to me when I testified previously in Congress. Instead of focusing on the problems with the industry, and examining what needs to be changed, Mika attacked me by saying my testimony was biased because I was simply a Plaintiff in Florida suing the cruise ship industry and made a lot of money in doing so. He also said that the cruise ship industry was very important to Florida, and brought the economy a lot of money. To me, it was irrelevant to the issues before the Committee, which was safety of the passengers.

In this current hearing, he again went right to the benefits the cruise ship industry brings to the state of Florida, stating that “Over 8 million passengers embarked from Florida in 2010 and the industry contributed to more than $6.3 billion in direct spending.” Representative Brown added: “In addition, the cruise industry is the second-largest employer in Florida, generating more than 123,000 jobs paying $5.4 billion in income.”

The SunSentinel states that Brown received approximately $23,000.00 in campaign contributions from the cruise ship industry, and Mika netted at least another $4,000.00. This information was obtained from the Center for Responsive Politics, which is a non-partisan watchdog.

The American Association for Justice also wrote about the recent hearing held by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

It was great to hear that at least one member of Congress acted as a voice on behalf of passengers, by discussing a very harsh and archaic law called the Death on the High Seas Act, which unfairly restricts the amount of damages family members can receive for the wrongful death of a loved one that happens on the high seas. Congresswoman Hirono was quoted as follows:

“Under the Death on the High Seas Act, cruise passengers are only entitled to

their economic damages. In the case of retirees, the children, stay at home

spouses and low income workers – in other words, people who have no or little

economic value under the law – they are only entitled to the cost of their coffins

and funeral expenses. I would like to ask each of my panelists here today whether

or not they feel it is equitable to deny these people the full extent of damages

if they are killed about your ships because of your negligence?”

Big applause to Congresswoman Hirono. This is a law that must be taken off the books. It has been there way too long. It is another friend of the cruise ship industry. They spend millions of dollars lobbying Congress each year to make sure laws like this stay on the books. A law like this deprives people their full extent of their losses when a loved one is killed onboard a cruise ship, or any other vessel on the high seas. Most deaths onboard a cruise ship or on a vessel will occur on the high seas, except for recreational boating accidents resulting in death.

In addition to the well needed comments of Congresswoman Hirono regarding the Death on the High Seas Act, she also expressed her concern about the benefits the cruise ship companies enjoy by being able to limit the legal rights of passengers on cruise ships by inserting provisions in the passenger tickets which dictate the choice-of-forum, choice-of-law, and of course the shortened statute of limitations to file the lawsuit. She pointed out that there should be an additional hearing to address antiquated maritime laws and whether they need to be changed. Clearly they do need to be changed, and it was great to hear the Congresswoman expressing such. Unfortunately, she was outnumbered at the hearing.

A hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled for the following day, March 1, 2012, to address current cruise ship industry regulations and whether they are sufficient to protect passengers and the environment. It is hopeful that the cruise ship industry will not have the same friends at the hearing before the U.S. Senate panel. U.S. Senator J. Rockefeller of West Virginia, the chairperson of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, released the following statement:

“I leave that we must ask why an industry that earns billions….pays almost

no corporate income tax…the environmental damage caused by cruise ships

happens far too regularly. These floating cities produce enormous volumes

of sewage and solid waste. The environmental practices of the industry are

unconscionable.”

The only two survivors from the Costa Concordia who testified at the hearing before the House talked about the incompetence and dishonesty on the part of the captain and crew. Dyvya and Sameras Aneer Sharma, of Massachusetts, were taking a cruise on the Costa Concordia for their 5th wedding anniversary. They ended up escaping the vessel on a lifeboat. However, they described hours of chaos that began after they had ordered appetizers for dinner. “There was a violent shaking of the ship followed by loud crash noises as the plates and glasses broke due to the listing of the ship….everyone nearby started to scream,” Dyvya Sharma said to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. She continued to state that a few minutes after this, the staff began “to bring out food as if nothing bad had happened,” further saying that passengers were told it was “nothing but an electrical failure” and then further instructions were given to stay in the room because “there was no emergency”. The Sharmas then described getting onboard a lifeboat more than an hour after the ship actually ran aground, after plowing through “shoving, pushing and kicking” crowds to get to the lifeboats.

In addition to the concerns focusing on what caused the grounding, and the failure to promptly evacuate, many passengers are appalled at the disorganization and indifference shown to them once they arrived on land. It was reported that Costa did not have staff trained to handle an emergency situation, resulting in further chaos and mistreatment once the passengers actually got off the vessel onto the island.

Again it remains to be seen what effect these hearings are going to have on the cruise ship industry. It is apparent that the cruise ship industry is concerned about the adverse publicity they are receiving. The first hearing in the House with friends like Mika and Brown is just what the doctor ordered for the cruise ship industry, an opportunity to again spin the facts and information to portray the cruise ship industry favorably.

I truly hope that I will be an invited speaker again during one of the upcoming Congressional Hearings, where I can point back to my earlier testimony and say that it’s about time that Congress gets the message that the cruise line industry needs to be regulated more, laws need to be changed, and that there is a serious problem with the industry.

Our firm continues to act as safety advocates, and represent those who suffer harm at sea.