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Brett Rivkind
Brett Rivkind
Attorney • (305) 374-0565

Solving Crimes and Disappearances on Cruise Ships

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Having represented many passengers who have been the victim of a crime aboard a cruise ship, including sexual assaults, as well as family members who have lost their loved one during a cruise I am often asked the question why do we not hear more about criminal prosecutions arising out of these incidents.

The problem is in solving a crime or disappearance that happens onboard a cruise ship. We have all just watched the Casey Anthony trial in which most of the public believed Casey Anthony was guilty of murder. The majority of the public was outraged of the verdict of not guilty. In the post trial interviews and commentary, we learned that jurors felt the state did not prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt because there was no physical evidence produced by the state establishing exactly how little Caylee was killed. In other words there was no cause of death, and no direct evidence establishing that Casey had in fact murdered her child.

Although I am a civil trial lawyer representing individuals and family members in personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits, I have frequently been involved in cases that would fall also within the criminal arena. These cases involve sexual assaults onboard cruise ships, as well as incidents where a passenger goes overboard during a cruise and disappears. In the well known case of George Smith, who went missing during his honeymoon cruise, we had the privilege of representing the parents of George Smith. Civil litigation was pursued by the Smith family in effort to obtain information from the cruise line which can be obtained during the discovery process in a civil lawsuit. This would include seeking important documents that the cruise ship company would have possession and control over, as well as surveillance videos the cruise ship would have possession and control over. In addition the discovery process would require the cruise line to answer questions under oath, including deposition testimony of key witnesses. The Smiths were thwarted in their efforts to pursue civil litigation in order to gain information from the cruise line. The cruise line resisted efforts to provide information, and then vigorously defended the civil lawsuit by relying on law that stated that a cruise ship company has no duty to family members or passengers themselves to investigate and preserve evidence. In addition, they argued they had no duty to provide information.

This leads back to the title of the article, solving a crime or disappearance onboard a cruise ship. How does one solve a crime or disappearance onboard a cruise ship, if the cruise ship company has no duty to investigate, and cannot be held liable for not conducting a proper investigation, or in fact conducting an improper investigation that arguably results in losing critical information necessary to an investigation.

Some years ago a cruise ship company was required to produce information regarding the number of sexual assaults that had been reported onboard their ships over a certain period of time. The number was much greater than expected. Despite the number of sexual assaults reported, another major cruise line was proud to announce there had not ever been a successful prosecution against anyone involving a sexual assault aboard any of their ships. This only showed that despite a number of sexual assaults having occurred aboard the cruise ships, no one had ever been sucessfully prosecuted. This only reflected that the fact that it is extremely difficult to successfully prosecute a sexual assault that occurs onboard a cruise ship. In the case of George Smith, foul play was suspected by the authorities. However, the mystery of what occurred to George Smith still has not been solved.

Why do these crimes go unsolved and unprosecuted? In my opinion, the main reason is that a cruise ship is a floating crime scene. Without strict procedures and laws dictating reporting requirements, and preservation of evidence, valuable time and evidence is lost by the time the appropriate authorities get onboard the ship to start an investigation. In addition, the cruise line often times has a dilemma. A proper investigation and successful prosecution against the perpetrator may also lead to imposition of civil liability on the part of the cruise ship company. Accordingly, a prompt and proper investigation may not always be in the best interest of the cruise ship company.

In the past, the cruise lines have been criticized for not promptly reporting crimes that occur aboard their ship, including sexual assaults. They have been criticized for not properly investigating and preserving evidence. As a result, there have been many claims against the cruise ship company for actually causing the loss of critical evidence which resulted in the inability to successfully prosecute anyone, and be able to prove the occurrence. Did these cases involve cover ups? There have been many cases where cover up has been alleged. Many have argued that the cruise ship companies in the past have wanted to hide the fact of sexual assaults occurring aboard the cruise ships in effort not to damage their reputation. As a result, the cruise ship companies did not have an internal mechanism which fostered an environment where prompt and proper steps would be taken following a reported sexual assault onboard a ship which would lead to obtaining and preservation of critical evidence.

With respect to disappearances, the main difficulty is that the body is rarely recovered when a passenger goes overboard. Getting back to the Casey Anthony trial, without a body and a clear establishment of cause of death, it is difficult to prosecute anyone for a crime. In the case of George Smith, his body was never recovered. In addition, due to jurisdictional complexities as to who the proper authorities responsible for the prompt and thorough investigation of the matter were, there was a significant delay in the investigation by the United States FBI. Experts criticized the cruise lines for not properly reporting the incident, not properly preserving evidence, which hampered the FBI’s investigation into the death of George Smith.

The conclusion is that solving any crime or disappearance onboard a cruise ship is very difficult. The difficulty stems from the fact that it is a floating crime scene, and the legal authorities often times are not able to promptly get onboard the ship and conduct a complete and thorough investigation. By the time an investigation is launched by the authorities, critical time and evidence have been lost. In addition, the cruise lines have been conducting their own investigations, and there is a serious conflict of interest in doing so. The cruise lines have an incentive to gear their investigation toward the defense of any potential litigation in the future. It is only by strict regulation and laws applying to the cruise lines regarding how to report and investigate crimes onboard their ships, including disappearances, that these problems can be better addressed. We have seen some positive movements by passage of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act. The formation of International Cruise Victims, who has been working in combination with overseas organizations such as Victims Support Europe also helps. These organizations are pushing for safety legislation, and are keeping the public informed of these issues.

I have written more in depth about the disappearance of George Smith and the difficulties in solving crimes and disappearances aboard a cruise ship on my other blog titled The Law of the Sea. (Put link there)

Our firm continues to be safety advocates for passengers and crewmembers who have been harmed or injured at sea.

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  1. Mark Bello says:
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    Brett: Thank you for sharing this valuable information. My wife and I are frequent cruisers. As a passenger, I put myself in the care of the captain and crew, and I am shocked to discover that they have almost no responsibilty for my or my family’s safety. ‘No duty to investigate or preserve evidence….’ shocking! Sounds like tort reform! Thanks again, Mark