Cruise Ship Accidents and Liability
Injuries and accidents can happen anywhere, including cruise ships and other so-called common carriers. But while injuries incurred on land often can be resolved through tort law, injury claims that arise from cruise ship accidents are handled in a much different manner. A cruise ship operator must exercise reasonable care for the safety of its passengers, in accordance with maritime law (also called admiralty law), and will be held liable for passenger injuries caused by negligence or willful actions (regardless of fault or intent).
Injured cruise ship passengers typically must file claims for damages in the state indicated on the back of the ticket, regardless of the location of the incident or the passenger's home residence. Injured passengers can usually sue the operators of cruise ships for injuries caused by employees, although courts differ on this issue.
This article covers the basics of cruise ship accidents and how passengers may file claims for injuries. See FindLaw's Travel and Aviation Accidents section for related information.
Common Carriers and Maritime Law
A common carrier is an individual or company that transports goods or passengers on regular routes at set rates, which includes cruise ships (and also airplanes, buses, ferries, and trains). A common carrier must use the highest degree of care to safely transport its passengers to their destination. But unlike the legal theory of strict liability, in which fault need not be established, passengers of common carriers must prove negligence or intent on behalf of the carrier (as governed by 47 U.S.C. § 206).
Most cruise ships serving U.S. customers are not registered in the United States, but rather in countries such as Panama or the Bahamas (where safety and labor regulations are relatively lax). Thus maritime law applies. Under maritime law, carriers are held liable for cruise ship accidents only if it can be shown that the ship's operator knew or should have known about an unsafe condition. In 2006, U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck issued the following opinion in Lynn Baker v. Carnival Corp.:
"There must be some failure to exercise due care before liability may be imposed...The question becomes whether the defendant created an unsafe or foreseeably hazardous condition."
The Cruise Ship Ticket as a Legal Contract
Most of what you need to know, with respect to a ship operator's liability and where lawsuits may be filed, is printed on the back of the ticket. By purchasing the ticket and boarding the ship, you legally consent to its terms. You may see a limited liability waiver (such as a clause releasing the operator from liability for emotional distress), a forum-selection clause, and a notice-requirement clause.
A forum-selection (or venue) clause indicates the state in which a lawsuit may be filed, typically Florida, where most major cruise lines are headquartered (even if the ship itself is registered in another country). And despite its obvious inconvenience to plaintiffs living in other parts of the country, most courts have upheld these clauses as reasonable.
A notice-requirement clause requires the injured passenger to file a claim for damages within the time period stated in the contract. Maritime law allows a relatively generous three-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims. This notice-requirement clause may shorten the window to 12 months for physical injuries, and even shorter (potentially just days after the incident) for non-physical injuries.
This just goes to show that it's a good idea to read the back of your cruise ship ticket before boarding.
Cruise Ship Accidents: Determining Negligence
Again, cruise ship operators are not strictly liable for passenger injuries and must be found to have been negligent or acting with willful intent. The determination of negligence, under maritime law, primarily hinges on whether a "reasonably careful ship operator" likely would not have known about the hazard that caused the injury. The law allows for the understanding that is not possible for even the most careful ship operator to foresee every dangerous condition.
For example, a reasonably careful ship operator should have known a railing was rusted and cracked before a passenger plunged into the water after leaning on the rail. But the same operator probably would not have been able to predict the earthquake-triggered tsunami that forced the captain to make an emergency maneuver, causing minor injuries to passengers and crew as a result of rough conditions.
In order to prevail, the plaintiff will want to find witnesses, use an expert witness, or present some kind of evidence pointing to the operator's negligence. Sometimes, proving negligence is as simple as proving noncompliance with a given regulation.
Injuries Caused by Cruise Ship Employees
When a passenger suffers a cruise ship accident or injury caused by a crew member's negligence or willful intent, even if a "reasonably careful ship operator" could not have foreseen the employee's actions, most courts hold the operator liable for these acts. This rule also applies when crew and passengers are onshore during a port of call, in many cases. One exception is the ship's doctor and associated health care providers, as long as they are classified as independent contractors (not employees of the cruise line) who are properly trained and licensed.
Cruise ship accidents are not common, but do happen from time to time. Speak with an admiralty and maritime lawyer licensed to practice in the operator's forum (state) of choice if you have additional questions.