There have always been murmurs, interrupted by occasional shouts, about the dark side of traveling on a cruise ship. Some of the stories – of passengers falling overboard and drowning, burning to death in an on-board fire, being sexually assaulted, smashing onto a deck after a cord broke on an onboard bungee jump – are horrific.
If any of these incidents had occurred in a hotel or recreational park on U.S. soil, there would be a legal remedy of a civil lawsuit, likely for negligence, and damages would be in the millions.
Suing a cruise line, however, is a whole different matter.
How Can I Sue a Cruise Line?
Most cruise lines are international companies. If a cruise ship departs from a United States port, then the cruise line can be sued in the United States.
However, a passenger cannot sue a cruise line in just any court. The place of suit, known as venue, is limited by the fine print in the passenger’s cruise line ticket. That ticket is actually a contract between the passenger and the cruise line. It contains a host of restrictions, including where a lawsuit must be filed.
How Long Do I Have To Sue A Cruise Line?
The tickets issued by the big 3 cruise lines – Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian – require that suit be brought in the Southern District of Florida.
Those same tickets impose a rigorous timetable to bring a lawsuit. Under maritime law, the usual period to file a suit for a tort claim like negligence is 3 years. However, most cruise ship tickets reduce that time to just 1 year. To make it worse, the tickets require that the injured party give them written notice in just 6 months.
The problem with this shortened period, aside from it coming as a hugely unpleasant surprise to most passengers and their lawyers, is that it requires a lawsuit be filed while the injured party may still be in medical treatment. This make it challenging, if not impossible, to calculate damages.
Compiling evidence can also be difficult for an injured passenger. The site of the wrongdoing is usually the cruise ship itself, and the witnesses are often crew members. Cruise ships are meant to cruise, which means that once that ship leaves port, it takes much of the evidence with it.
There is one good law that makes gathering evidence a bit easier. The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 set standards for crime scene preservation, and created an online database of cruise ship incident reports. If you are thinking about taking a cruise, you will find it worth your while look at the CVSSA reports on the www.transportation.gov website.
Perhaps the most formidable challenge to a lawsuit where a death occurred is the Death on the High Seas Act, a 1920’s law. It applies to transportation passenger deaths that occur 3 or more nautical miles from the shore of the United States or in a foreign country. The DOHSA only allows a family to recover pecuniary expenses, and nothing for pain and suffering. Because of the formula it uses, if the deceased was an older retired person, recovery could be limited to just funeral expenses.
You can sue a cruise line, but don’t expect your lawsuit to be smooth sailing.
Virginia Hammerle is a Texas attorney whose practice includes estate planning, guardianship and probate. Sign up for her newsletter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Hammerle Finley Law Firm to schedule a consultation at hammerle.com.
This column does not constitute legal advice.