In the wake of the Costa Concordia disaster, where we are viewing incredible photographs of a mega cruise ship half submerged in water, learning of many deaths that occurred as a result of this disaster, issues are arising as to how safe cruising on cruise ships really is. The Costa Concordia had over 3,000 passengers and an additional thousand crewmembers onboard the ship. Not only is the captain of the Costa Concordia, Francisco Schettino being held for possible manslaughter charges and abandonment of ship, the evacuation procedures that followed the grounding of the vessel striking rocks, is being questioned. Panic and chaos was reported by many of the passengers. Some passengers jumped off the ship and swam to shore. Many of the individuals aboard the ship never made it off the vessel. Although the death toll has increased to at least 11, this will unfortunately increase as more bodies are located.
We know that the captain made it off the vessel, and is being charged for abandoning his ship before everybody was safely evacuated from the ship.
This incident raises serious questions as to how safe a cruise ship really is. I have been handling maritime cases for almost 30 years now, and have seen a tremendous growth in the cruise ship industry. The growth has not only been the increase in the number of ships, but the size of the vessels. I previously wrote about the incredible sizes of these new mega cruise ships. We now have cruise ships carrying over 8,000 passengers and crewmembers.
Can all these passengers and crewmembers be safely evacuated in the case of an emergency? The Costa Concordia disaster emphasizes how difficult it is to evacuate all the passengers and crew from a mega cruise ship. The Costa Concordia is laying on its side, half submerged in water, practically on land. However, the evacuation procedures took approximately many hours, and not everyone made it off the vessel safely. There was chaos and panic. How about all these other mega cruise ships, including the more recent ones that carry more passengers and crewmembers than the Costa Concordia? What would happen in the case of the need for an emergency evacuation aboard those vessels?
The cruise line industry is responding to this incident, as they do many of the other incidents that occur aboard cruise ships, such as sexual assaults, disappearances, accidents, and even possible murder by saying the numbers prove the ships are safe. The cruise ship companies constantly point to the number of passengers that travel aboard a cruise ship each year, and argue that the number of these serious incidents are, in their opinion, “negligible”. The argument follows, on their part. Therefore, the cruise ships are a very safe mode of travel.
Is statistical evidence of past sexual assaults, disappearances, crimes, murders, and incidents such as the Costa Concordia, an accurate way to determine the safety of the cruise ships? Is this a matter of opinion? Is it a subjective analysis? Does it mean the industry should be left alone and allowed to by and large regulate itself?
In my opinion, the incidents involving sexual assaults, serious accidents, and potential murder onboard a cruise ship, raise safety issues notwithstanding any statistical numbers the cruise ship industry throws at us. The problems need to be addressed, and things made safer. It doesn’t mean there should not be cruise ships, and that people should not go on cruise ships. It means we should continue to keep the spotlight on the cruise ship industry, and not turn it off simply because of their statistical analysis arguments.
The Costa Concordia incident has reminded many people of the Titanic, which was 100 years ago. However in between, we’ve read about close incidents that could have led to serious disasters. We’ve heard of cruise ships losing power at sea, and cruise ships that have tilted or listed drastically, where the cruise ship could very well have sank. Recently, there was an incident involving the Brilliance of the Seas where the vessel was reported to have tilted to the side at least 40 degrees, and some reported even more. This incident led to a death aboard the cruise ship. Fortunately, the ship did not sink, and there were not more fatalities. Does that mean it proves the cruise ships are safe and that we don’t need to address safety issues more? Of course not.
My point is that I don’t believe the past history is an accurate reflection because the question is has the industry really been tested. Have we really had to test whether a mega cruise ship can safely evacuate almost 8,000 people? Will panic and chaos arise aboard one of these mega cruise ships, interfere with a safe evacuation?
Many are reporting that one of the problems is the international makeup of the crew and passengers aboard these cruise ships that interfere with the safe evacuation of a cruise ship. The cruise ship companies continue to enjoy privileges of being able to hire foreign labor from third world countries at wages that could never be considered acceptable in more developed countries. These crewmembers are very hard working and good people. I have the privilege of representing crewmembers, as well as passengers, and I find that the crewmembers are extremely hard working and devoted individuals. However, the benefit of being able to hire from the third world countries, and escape United States labor laws, does result in some problems with respect to the skills and experience of the crewmembers that can be recruited by the cruise ship industry. With the increase in the number of cruise ships, the labor pool shrinks. However, the cruise ship industry continues to focus on the third world countries for their labor. These crewmembers are then required to work 7 days a week, oftentimes 10 to 14 hours per day. These are the same crewmembers that a passenger on a cruise ship will have to rely upon during an emergency evacuation to help save their lives. In speaking with some passengers from the Costa Concordia, I was told many of the crewmembers were more scared than they were, and seem not well prepared for an emergency. We know the captain of the Costa Concordia appears to have thought of his safety first, being charged with abandoning his ship.
What does that mean for our United States passengers? It means that one must think that if there is a disaster at sea aboard one of these mega cruise ships, can everybody be safely evacuated? The cruise ship industry is coming forward and pointing out statistically they haven’t had an incident like the Costa Concordia in modern day history, and therefore there is nothing to worry about. They point to international safety standards, and training requirements. They point to safety drills that are required to be performed aboard the cruise ships. However, are they adequately addressing how the day to day operations really do work, and how they actually feel about the ability to promptly and safely evacuate so many passengers on these mega cruise ships in case of an emergency? Have they come forward and directly answered a difficult question, can you safely evacuate 8,000 people off a cruise ship in the case of a disaster? How are you going to deal with chaos and panic that will be obvious from having so many people onboard a cruise ship, and a mix of cultures and backgrounds among not only the crewmembers, but the passengers? Included in that mix is the different ages of the crewmembers, and any disabilities or problems those particulars passengers may suffer from.
I think that this incident involving the Costa Concordia will bring to light the need to evaluate the safety of mega cruise ships, and whether more needs to be done. I believe the procedures for evacuations onboard cruise ships will be scrutinized. I believe that our United States Congress needs to get more involved in regulating the cruise ship industry that profits from the millions of U.S. passengers that sail aboard the cruise ships each year. At the present time, the cruise ship companies enjoy favorable laws that allow them to limit their liabilities, lessen the time for passengers to file a lawsuit, require passengers to file their lawsuits in a particular venue in a federal district court, and limit their exposure in cases involving Death on the High Seas Act. In addition, the cruise ship companies are now trying to escape their obligations under the United States law to the valuable crewmembers who are employed aboard the cruise ships. These are the same crewmembers who one must rely upon to help save their lives in case of an emergency.
These valuable crewmembers, hired from third world countries, who are the backbone of the cruise ship industry, and the ones who must assist in the safe evacuation of the ship in case of a disaster, typically have enjoyed special rights to compensation in case of illness or injury. They have enjoyed the benefit of what is called the Jones Act, a federal statute enacted in 1920 to provide them with a negligence cause of action against their employer. Congress recognized at the time the need to protect seamen, and to provide a method of recovery for them. The statute typically was intended to receive a liberal interpretation to protect seamen. Recently, the cruise ship companies, instead of valuing their precious commodity, the crewmembers, have embarked on a course of action to deny them their rights and to severely limit any rights to compensation for injuries or illnesses. With the stroke of a pen, they have inserted in the employment agreements with seamen, which are take or leave it employment agreements, mandatory arbitration provisions requiring a seaman to arbitrate his claims in a foreign country, and also arguing for the application of a foreign law instead of the Jones Act.
Again, the cruise ship companies are not looking for methods to increase accountability, and address these difficult questions, but instead are looking for ways to further limit their liability and exposure to those who are injured or harmed at sea.
I recently appeared on CBS Evening News show during a story, stating that these mega cruise ships are very profitable to the cruise ship industry. An analysis was done by CBS News showing how profitable it was to increase the sizes of these cruise ships, increasing the capacity of the passengers aboard the ships. The show questioned how safe a passenger really is in case of any emergency. At the same time, we must question whether safety is taking a backseat to profits, as it often does with corporations.
My firm continues to act as safety advocates for those injured or harmed at sea.