Sadly, Zion Smith, an 8-year-old girl from the Bahamas fell to her death aboard a Carnival cruise ship this week. Reportedly she was on her tippy toes looking over an interior railing as thousands of cruise ship passengers attempted to disembark from Carnival’s Glory while docked in the Port of Miami when she fell over the fifth-floor balcony.
As a cruise ship accident lawyer, I have investigated thousands of accident claims over the last 26 years, including the Glory. The question that many are asking is why and how could this tragic accident have been prevented. Sadly, we may never know exactly what happened as Carnival, which is the largest cruise line in the world, does not routinely have CCTV cameras in most of the common areas of their ships.
Secondly, Carnival, like most cruise lines, does not have to abide by the same building code requirements that land-based public hotels and resorts and other businesses have to abide. There are not building code inspectors that come on to cruise ships to make sure they meet minimum standards for things like step height, lighting, signage and or for most other major architectural features found on ships.
In fact, virtually every cruise ship, including the Glory are flagged in foreign countries. The Glory was built in Italy and is registered in Panama, even though the ship sails out of the Port of Miami just a few miles from Carnival’s world headquarters. I would be surprised if the ship has even been to Panama.
Maritime law applies to accidents on cruise ships, even when they are in port. This body of law is a complex web, and much more difficult to navigate for injured people and their families to obtain justice while protecting the profits of the cruise lines. For example, if this same incident were to have occurred the bay in Miami Beach at a fancy hotel rather than on a cruise ship - an entirely different body of law would apply.
One major difference is the amount of time the family would have to file this claim (only one year for maritime claims) versus (two years for a wrongful death claim and four years for an injury claim) on land. Another significant difference is the damages that are available to families of those who die on a cruise ship assuming that the death is caused by the cruise line’s carelessness. The Death on the High Seas Act applies to accidental death claims that occur while the ship is at sea and limits the family’s potential compensation to funeral expenses and lost wages. And while this event occurred in port- the families damages will still be limited.
But before any claim can successfully be made- if first has to be determined that the fall and death were the faults at least in some part of Carnival. And while we have not been hired by this family- I imagine that Carnival will never, ever admit to any degree of fault here. That means that the family and their lawyers will have to investigate the accident to understand how and why it occurred and whether or not Carnival knew or should have known of a problem with this railing (it height, maintenance or repair) that contributed to her fall. This will certainly not be easy and will require that an engineer go aboard the vessel to take measurements and inspect the scene.
Of course, it is possible that the fall was sadly just the child’s fault for peering too far over the balcony- and assuming the railing was adequate and that Carnival had no advance warning of problems with it such as other similar incidents- there may be no legal recourse at all. And Federal judges (who enjoy lifetime appointments to the Bench) rule over cruise ship accident cases like this-- will be quick to dismiss any claim against Carnival that is not rooted in proof of their negligence.
I've written before about the importance of child supervision and safety issues on cruise ships, around pools on stairs, railings, and balconies. One thing we can be sure of is that a full independent investigation of this tragedy is required. Our sincerest condolences go out to the family and friends of this child.