The Blog

A Lawyer's Perspective on Suing Cruise Lines

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

I write frequently about legal issues concerning the cruise industry. I was surprised at the number and tenor of the comments posted about my recent blog on Pre-Paid Alcoholic Drink Packages on cruises. The post received hundreds of comments and nearly 1000 likes on Facebook, but nearly all of the comments were quite negative about my intentions as a lawyer who sues cruise lines, and about the injured passengers I represent.

I wanted to take this opportunity to reply to the commenters and try to explain what, how, and why lawyers who represent injured passengers do when they take on a cruise line. I know this post may engender further distrust and anger, but my hope is that it will educate many of the commenters on what I believe is a fallacy of misplaced concreteness (treating abstract beliefs as though they were concrete realities).

First, I am business owner, husband, and father. I make decisions about how I choose to spend my professional time with the expectation that I will be compensated for it. In other words, I take on cases that I believe will yield a return on the investment of my effort. Don't we all do this every day in our jobs? So yes, I sue cruise lines when I believe the case will yield a fee that will translate into a profit--just as in every business, including the cruise lines, who host casinos and sell prepaid beverage plans, cabins, and excursions. They too are in business to turn a profit.

Secondly, not all accidents or claims are real. Some are frivolous, unprovable, or simply worth less than the cost of the filing fees. Every lawyer I know who practices in this area of maritime injury law works on a strict contingency basis, as I do. That means we are paid only if and when we win and collect money for our clients. If we choose the wrong case, or a frivolous case that is unprovable or has no merit, the cruise line's lawyers will seek to have the case dismissed. Cruise line cases, unlike the typical slip and fall at your local Piggly Wiggly, are required to be filed in a United States Federal Court, with a demanding docket run by judges who have lifetime appointments. Moreover, trying those cases requires that an attorney pass a different bar exam in most jurisdictions in addition to the bar exam needed to practice in the County or State Court.

A frivolous lawsuit would subject the passenger's lawyer to serious and petrifying consequences that include sanctions known as Rule 11. In addition to risking his or her time and money in taking on a case that is patently unwinnable, the lawyer may have to pay court costs and the attorney's fees to the cruise line, risk losing his or her privileges to practice, or worse. Only a foolish lawyer would take a chance at doing that.

That being said, there is also a potentially chilling effect that "playing it safe" can have by taking only very winnable cases. Let me explain: For the most part, the laws governing the legal rights of people injured aboard cruise ships are designed to protect the profits of the cruise industry, not the rights of the injured. For example, virtually every cruise line, including Carnival, has a one-year statute of limitations tucked into the fine print of the passenger ticket, mandating that passenger injury claims be filed in court within one year of the date of the incident. By contrast, if you were rear-ended by a Carnival delivery truck at the port of Miami, you would have four years to decide if a lawsuit needed to be filed, and you could choose if you wanted to file in State Court, as opposed to being forced to file in Federal Court.

In addition, the spouse of the person injured in the hypothetical case over an accident involving an automotive rear-end collision would have, under Florida law, the right to receive compensation for loss of services, loss of support, and loss of consortium. In Federal Maritime Claims, the passenger's spouse has no rights whatsoever to be compensated for similar losses, and the list of inequities involving Federal Maritime Claims goes on.

The only way to challenge many of the archaic laws that protect the cruise lines is to challenge them--which often requires a lawyer to take a big risk in both time and money, and such challenges will often end up being decided by an Appellate Court years down the road.

Moreover, the cruise lines have enormous resources to battle cases--with teams of lawyers, paralegals, investigators, doctors, as well as literally every one of the crew members on their ships ready to testify on their behalf and against the passenger who sues them. It is truly a legal David-versus-Goliath contest when we file a lawsuit on behalf of the typical passenger in an accident case.

And since the cruise lines operate with basically little to no oversight, in the form of building codes or frequent health department inspections, and are simply not subject to any of the laws that a similar business operating on shore in the United States faces--in terms of wages and hours, worker's compensation, or immigration reporting--the lawsuits brought by lawyers who sue them are virtually the only means of holding them accountable when their carelessness or greed results in harm.

I am very proud of the work my law firm has done to help people who have suffered accidents onboard cruise ships, such as the single mother who slipped and fell and broke her back on a wet and slippery deck, or the lady who fell down a flight of stairs that was concealed by inadequate lighting, or the lady who sat on a worn and broken deck chair that collapsed because of improper maintenance and repair. Those people suffered and will continue to suffer for the rest of their lives from situations that could have easily been avoided if the cruise lines had cared enough to make their ships safer.

At the end of the day, assuming the passenger's claim can get past the aggressive defense efforts of the cruise line's lawyers, and a Federal judge, a jury will ultimately decide if the person deserves compensation or not. While you may question the integrity of lawyers, including my own, rest assured that the United States' jury system, while not always perfect, is the best and most accurate device in the history of our planet for determining what justice is and who deserves it.