Child victims of sexual assault / exploitation aboard cruise ships have been handed a victory in Federal Court. Former U.S. Public Defender for the Southern District of Florida now U.S. District Court Judge, Kathleen Williams, ruled cruise lines can be held civilly liable for their crewmembers’ violation of the certain federal laws designed to protect children. Originally enacted as part of The Child Abuse Victims’ Right Act, Federal Statute 18 U.S.C. § 2255 provides minors who are victims of certain crimes involving sexual abuse, molestation, exploitation and other violent acts with a civil cause of action against those responsible. The federal statute, however, is silent as to whether only the perpetrator can be civilly penalized for such violent acts against children. Given the wording of the statute, an open legal question existed as to whether others responsible for the perpetrator’s conduct may also be held liable under the statute.
The scope of this federal statute was tested in a case involving an alleged sexual assault of a 17 year old passenger aboard a cruise ship operated by Royal Caribbean Cruises. The lawsuit alleges a cruise ship bartender served the minor dangerous amounts of alcohol then a cruise ship entertainer sexually assaulted and took sexually explicit photographs of her. The complaint filed in Miami, Florida set forth two counts against the cruise line under the statute. The lawsuit alleges the cruise line was vicariously liable for the actions of the crewmembers and such liability includes penalties under 18 U.S.C. § 2255.
The minor’s lawyers argued since the language of the statute does not restrict its scope to only the perpetrator, it must encompass not only the perpetrator, but also the cruise line. Royal Caribbean argued the Court should not extend the scope of the Act to include anyone other than the perpetrator. Maritime law holds a cruise line strictly responsible for the intentional actions including sexual assaults, rapes and other violent acts of their crewmembers against passengers. The Court determined when enacting the statute Congress understood maritime law holds cruise ship operators strictly liable for their crewmembers’ intentional acts against passengers. Armed with this knowledge or maritime law, Congress, in the Court’s view, could have expressly limited the Act’s scope to only the perpetrator, but, it did not. Therefore, the Court reasoned Congress intended to incorporate this maritime legal principle into the statute. Applying this statutory construction, the Court ruled 18 U.S.C. § 2255 provides children who were abused, exploited and/or victimized by a crewmember a direct claim against the cruise line in addition to existing maritime common (non-statutory) law.
This ruling has a significant impact upon maritime law. The statute states that any minor who is a victim of sexually assault, molestation, exploitation and other offenses can sue for compensatory damages and shall be deemed to have sustained damages of no less than $150,000 in value for each violation. Moreover, the statute provides the minor can receive attorneys’ fees if he/she wins the lawsuit. This ruling changes the landscape of cruise law. Before this decision, there was no minimum recovery for child assault, rapes and exploitations perpetrated by crewmembers and attorneys’ fees were not awardable.