Unfortunately cruise ship passengers fall overboard and disappear each year. It is unknown how often and how many passengers have fallen off cruise ships or disappeared because until the 2010 enactment of the Cruise Safety Act, cruise lines were not required to report these incidents. If you were unfortunate enough to fall overboard or suffer the pain of a loved one disappearing during a cruise vacation, maritime law does provide recourse.
Cruise lines can be held liable for passengers falling overboard or disappearing in a variety of ways including:
- Inadequate or defective handrails;
- Intoxication from being over served alcohol in the ship’s bars and lounges;
- Failure to warn of expected rough seas;
- Violent actions of the ship’s crew members or other passengers; and,
- Failure to perform adequate search & rescue operations.
Inadequate or Defective Handrails
Obviously a passenger could easily fall off a cruise ship if the handrails are of an inadequate height or defective. To combat this danger Congress recently passed the Cruise Safety Act. This law requires all cruise ships calling on U.S. ports to have handrails no less than 42 inches above the cabin deck by January 2012. If the cruise ship is outfitted with inadequate or defective handrails, the cruise line may be found negligent for a passenger falling overboard or disappearing.
Another cause attributable to passengers falling overboard or disappearing is intoxication. Cruise lines have the duty to limit their passengers alcohol consumption so they do not become intoxicated. Should a passenger become intoxicated, the cruise line has the duty to protect the passenger from his/her (albeit self-imposed) disability. If the cruise line fails to carry its duty, it will be liable for the passenger’s disappearance and/or damages associated with the passenger falling overboard.
Failing to Warn of Rough Conditions
Cruise lines are obligated to warn passengers of known dangers or dangers for which they should have known. In the context of passengers falling overboard or disappearing, this duty usually arises when the ship is expected to encounter rough seas. Often times at sea, weather conditions can deteriorate rapidly. Nearly all cruise ships are equipped with state of the art weather radar and have access to forecasts and conditions for the areas they are sailing. As such, the “deck officers” know when the ship is about to cruise into rough seas where the passengers (who are enjoying their vacations) do not. Consequently, cruise lines are obligated to warn of approaching storms and the dangers of being near the rails during rough seas. If a cruise line fails to warn of such approaching dangers, it may be held liable for passengers who fall overboard during a storm.
Violent Actions of Crew Members
Passenger disappearance may also be as a result of violent actions of the cruise ship’s crew members. Cruise lines have the absolute duty to protect their passengers against physical assaults by crew members. If a passenger is pushed overboard by a crew member, the cruise line will be strictly liable even if the crew member had no history of violent behavior.
Violent Actions of Fellow Passengers
Cruise lines may also be responsible for disappearances caused by the violent actions of its passengers. However, unlike the violent actions of their crew members for which the cruise line is strictly liable, a cruise line will only be liable if it could have anticipated the violent activity of the other passenger and could have prevented the injury.
Duty to Perform Adequate Rescue Operations
Once a missing passenger is reported, cruise lines have the duty to perform a reasonable search and rescue operation. Should the cruise line fail to conduct a search and rescue operation or performs such an operation in an inadequate way, it will be liable for the death or further injury of the passenger.
Should you have any questions concerning passengers’ falling overboard or disappearing and the cruise line’s liability, please do not hesitate to contact our board certified maritime attorneys.