Woman Who Dies at Sea Raises More Cruise Line Safety Questions

Woman Who Dies at Sea Raises More Cruise Line Safety QuestionsCruise line safety is in the news again, highlighting the deficiencies in an industry that carries millions of people yearly on the high seas on what are essentially floating cities. A recent incident has led to a lawsuit raising questions of how much the cruise lines are doing to avoid accidents.

Lawsuit Involves Woman Who Fell Overboard

A lawsuit has been filed against Carnival Cruise lines by a man whose wife fell overboard and was lost at sea while on a cruise. The man was not on the cruise, but heard of the presumed death by the coast guard, after he had received texts from her friends on the ship that she had gone missing.

It was later learned that the victim was inebriated and fell overboard. The incident was caught on video, although the existence of the video was not known until after the incident. The video showed the victim climbing and sitting on a railing with her back to the water, before falling backwards.

Cruise Line Responsibility

While those facts may make the victim seem to be at fault, the family’s attorney has pointed out facts that if true, would tend to show Carnival Cruise Line could have and should have done more to either prevent the incident, or find the woman after she went overboard.

For example, the lawsuit alleges that although cameras caught the fall, the ship sent no alert to crew, it did not turn around, or even look for the woman. The U.S. Coast Guard was not even notified until 15 hours after the fall, losing critical search time and significantly widening the potential search area for coast guard rescuers.

The lawsuit also alleges that cruise staff continued to serve the woman alcohol even after she was visibly inebriated. One witness said that the woman could barely stay awake and was still served drinks. Many cruise lines, including Carnival, have policies that allow their crew members to escort intoxicated guests to their cabins, a policy the victim’s family says was not followed here.

No Alarm Systems

The victim’s attorneys bring up a serious issue in the cruise industry—the failure to use any alarm system to immediately alert the ship’s crew that someone has gone overboard, even though such technology does exist.

A small device can be mounted on the ship that emits a laser. The laser can detect when someone falls overboard, and the device can immediately notify a ship’s crew of the incident, saving valuable time. The device’s maker says that at this time, no major cruise line has purchased the device for their ships. Cruise lines dismiss the technology, saying that alarm-type systems are unreliable and result in numerous false positive alerts.

This is particularly troubling given that “man overboard” incidents are surprisingly common—there have already been 17 in 2017 and since 1995, 294 such incidents have been reported.

Not all incidents are accidents; some are suicide attempts. Some involve fighting or violence between passengers that results in someone being thrown overboard. Additionally, these numbers may be lower for cruises that are not originating in the United States and for which reporting requirements may be less stringent. Some also believe that the numbers do not reflect crew members going overboard, which may not be reported at all on international cruises.

Survival is Difficult in Overboard Cases

The chances of survival when someone goes overboard are slim: Some estimate that there is an 85-90% chance that the event is fatal (usually, presumed fatal when the victim cannot be found). Chances are better when the crew is notified immediately of the fall, which allows a search to take place in a more confined area.

Of course, other factors such as weather, visibility, the condition of waves, and the ability of the victim to swim, also play into survivability. Colder water can also limit a body’s ability to stay afloat, and hypothermia will eventually set in.

New Law May Strengthen Victim’s Rights

Congress is considering a bill that would require cruise ships to have man overboard alarm systems. If passed, the bill would add sweeping changes to safety regulations on cruises. The new law would

  • Require cruises notify the FBI of an incident within four hours, and if an incident occurs while the vessel is in port, the FBI must be notified before the vessel leaves port
  • Require video surveillance in public areas and ensure that civil litigants have access to the videos
  • Require usage of technology to detect when passengers fall overboard
  • Allow victims’ families to recover fair compensation for damages when a loved one dies at sea due to the negligence of a cruise line

The last provision is crucial and somewhat controversial. Unlike state laws, maritime laws currently forbid the family of someone who dies at sea from recovery of pain and suffering, grief, emotional, or mental anguish.

The result is that people’s lives are valued only at their actual financial worth to their families. A non-wage earner such as a stay at home mother may have little “value” under current maritime laws. Unless a family can provide that the deceased would have provided financial support, or that there are actual monetary damages like funeral expenses, or lost future wages, potential recovery for a maritime death can be limited.

The damage restrictions also provide little incentive for cruise lines to spend money improving safety features, knowing that potential legal exposure may be low enough to not make it worth spending money on safety upgrades.

If you or a loved one are injured at sea or on a cruise, contact maritime injury attorneys immediately. Contact Brill & Rinaldi today about a free consultation to discuss your case to see if someone may be responsible.