I have reported many instances of persons going overboard on cruise ships. My office has handled way too many of these types of cases. Questions arise immediately as to why or how an individual can go overboard on a cruise ship. Is it foul play? Is it suicide? Is it an accident? Often times we never find the answer because a body is never located, and closed circuit cameras onboard the cruise ship were not available to shed light on what occurred.
The most well known case involved George Smith, who went missing during his honeymoon cruise. Based on what information was obtained, it is believed that George Smith was the victim of foul play. However, it remains an unresolved case, and there has never been a criminal prosecution that has arisen as a result of his death. Alcohol is also believed to have played a factor in the death of George Smith, as is often times the case with a person who is reported to have gone overboard on a cruise ship.
Regardless of why or how a person goes overboard on a cruise ship, the United States Congress recognized the occurrences of disappearances of passengers from cruise ships on the high seas, and enacted the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010, signed into law by President Obama. This law was enacted after several congressional hearings addressing crimes and disappearances on cruise ships, and the need for legislation to address the problems onboard cruise ships. I was an invited speaker during the congressional hearings as a maritime expert to testify regarding cruise ship safety and security, and answer questions from the Congressmen regarding the cruise ship industry. I have handling maritime cases for 30 years.
In the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010, Congress made the following findings, among others;
Sexual violence, the disappearance of passengers from vessels on the high seas, and other serious crimes that have occurred during luxury cruises.
The issue I want to focus on now is are the cruise ship companies utilizing the latest technology for capturing images of passengers or detecting passengers who have fallen overboard in order to start immediate search and rescue efforts.
Recently, our firm has been hired by the mother of Ariel Marion, who fell overboard during a cruise on the Allure of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean Cruise Line ship. According to statistics kept by Professor Ross Klein on his website, Cruisejunkie.com, there have been 16 persons who have gone overboard on cruise ships and ferry boats during 2012 alone. He has compiled statistics showing from the year 2000 that 190 persons have gone overboard.
The number of persons reported going overboard heightens the need to look at technology that can detect a person going overboard so that immediately search and rescue efforts can start. Each minute that passes after a person goes overboard without a search and rescue effort drastically reduces the chances of finding and saving the individual.
In the case of Ariel Marion, Vera Marion, her mother, went on a cruise with her daughter Ariel. The Royal Caribbean Cruise ship, Allure of the Seas, left from Fort Lauderdale and was only about 47 miles east of Fort Lauderdale when her daughter went overboard.
The timetable as to when the cruise ship company was on notice that a person went overboard, and when they started search and rescue efforts, at this point in time is based on reported information, and is somewhat disputed by the cruise ship company. However, I have not seen a reasonable explanation for the delay in reporting the overboard situation to the United States Coast Guard, nor for the delay to start search and rescue efforts. A story about this situation, which appeared on a Miami Television station which I appeared, can be found at: www.nbcmiami.com.
It has been reported that a passenger made a 911 phone call to cruise ship personnel at approximately 9:30pm or before, on Sunday, September 16, 2012. The passenger reported that she had been brushed on the shoulder when she was standing on her balcony and reported that a person may have gone overboard into the water. Unbelievably, the cruise ship company never provided any contact information for this woman to my client Vera Marion so that she could explore further the true facts of what happened in this case and why the cruise ship company didn’t start sooner search and rescue efforts. Instead Vera Marion has reported that she was taken to a holding area on the cruise ship and watched very closely by security, while the cruise continued. She was kept isolated, and was not provided information. In fact she has reported that she heard over the loud speaker, hours after her daughter had gone overboard, a code Oscar announcement which means a man overboard situation. She has questioned what took so long.
We do know from the United States Coast Guard report regarding the search and rescue efforts the Coast Guard was not notified until 11:30pm that night, and did not start it’s official search until 1:20am Monday, September 17, 2012. Incredibly, the Coast Guard was not notified until 2 hours after the 911 call from the passenger onboard the ship.
In a statement, Royal Caribbean admitted that a passenger made the 911 call at about 9:25pm, but states the passenger wasn’t clear of exactly what did go overboard at that time. Despite this call, Royal Caribbean claims it was not until 10:27pm that the security officer reviewed surveillance video and observed the woman going overboard. Again, the official Coast Guard report says that it was not until 11:30pm that they even notified the United States Coast Guard about a person going overboard.
The question becomes why didn’t the cruise ship company start a search and rescue effort earlier, fearing the worst, that a human life was at stake. They had a very creditable source, a passenger with a specific 911 emergency call fearing that a human life was at stake. This incident, as well as many of the others, takes us back to the Cruise Security and Safety Act of 2010, where almost two years ago, the United States Congress told the cruise line companies that they should integrate technology that can be used for capturing images of passengers or detecting passengers who have fallen overboard, to the extent that such technology is available.
Well, such technology does appear to be available. I interviewed Kendall Carver of International Cruise Victims Organization, who is a promoter of cruise ship safety. His organization has been lobbying Congress for years now, and has received international recognition and acceptance. The organization has been at the forefront of movements for safety legislation to protect passengers on cruise ships. He states that the technology is available, and that there have been companies that have presented this technology to the cruise ship companies, but no follow up has taken place on the part of the cruise ship companies.
However, Mr. Carver did supply me with the following from Holland American line, cruise ship company operating out of Seattle that is owned by Carnival Cruise lines;
Holland American Line has installed and is now testing the first ever thermal imaging system designed for a large cruise ship designed to immediately detect any person who may accidently fall overboard.
What I find appalling is that the cruise ship companies enjoy the benefits of what is called the Death on the High Seas Act. This particular incident, happened only 47 miles after leaving the Port of Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on the high seas. This is common, that an incident happens on the high seas. When a death happens on the high seas the cruise ship companies defend any claims by arguing the Death on the High Seas Act applies, which severely limits the amount of damages the cruise line company must pay for the death. For example, some cases my office has handled involved a 15 year old who went overboard, a infant who died on a cruise ship, the George Smith a disappearance case, 21 year who fell overboard, and many others involving deaths that has happened on the high seas. We are faced with the argument by the cruise line they only have to pay for the economic losses, which often times is negligible. In the case of the death of an infant, it may only be funeral expenses. In the case involving Ariel Marion, since she was 21 years old, not married, the economic loss recoverable in a wrongful death case would be negligible if the Death on the High Seas Act is held applicable.
There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to enforce the Death on the High Seas Act in cruise ship cases. Many years ago our Congress eliminated this archaic and harsh restriction on damages in airplane crash cases. However, the powerful cruise ship industry, who spends millions of dollars every year lobbying Congress, continues to enjoy this archaic and harsh limitation on the recoverability of damages in wrongful death cases. What is sad to think about is that the money that cruise line has to spend to reimburse the passengers of the Allure of the Seas during the cruise Ariel Marion went overboard, because they actually missed one of their port of call, will cost them more money than it would to compensate for the death of a young person.
Let’s say the cruise ship company should have started search and rescue efforts immediately upon receiving a 911 call, and let’s further say that Ariel Marion could have been saved. The cruise line can simply apologize, and know that the Death on the High Seas Act will shield them from significant damages they might have to pay for the death. I learned in law school that our torts system, which allows lawsuits to seek compensation for the wrongdoing of another, was not only designed to compensate, but was also designed to deter certain conduct, and encourage individual corporations to act responsibly and prudently. In order to do so you must hold individuals and corporations fully accountable. The Death on the High Seas Act does not do that at all. Instead, it shields cruise ship companies from wrongful death claims, even when the death is a result of the negligence of a cruise ship company.
In my opinion, the Death on the High Seas Act needs to be repealed. We need to write our Congressmen about this harsh law which only protects shipping companies, including the cruise ship industry. The BP oil spill shed light on the harshness of the Death on the High Seas Act limitations. Legislation almost passed to repeal the Death on the High Seas Act because of the BP oil spill, which again would have restricted the damages the family members of those who died could have received. However, again the cruise ship industry was involved in lobbying against any changes to the Death on the High Seas Act, and the act was never amended. The harsh limitations remain.
We need to speak out to Congress to get this law changed, and fast.
In my opinion, we also need to explore why the cruise ship industry hasn’t followed the Cruise Vessel and Security Act provision stating that they shall integrate technology that can be used for capturing images of passengers or detecting passengers who have fallen overboard. It appears the technology exists.
I would appreciate anybody’s thoughts on these matters. In the meantime, my client, Vera Marion, continues to cry thinking that had the cruise ship company responded sooner to the time her daughter went overboard, there was a chance she could have been found and saved.
Our maritime firm continues to be safety advocates for those harmed at sea.