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Why Cruise Lines Aren't Accountable to Their Passengers

As the shore slowly fades into the horizon so do the legal rights of cruise ship passengers.
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Tens of thousands of Americans take cruises every year. Most would agree that there is no better feeling than that first day at sea -- no land in sight for miles and miles. Unfortunately, as the shore slowly fades into the horizon so do the legal rights of cruise ship passengers. It is only, when a cruise turns from vacation to tragedy that passengers learn just how few legal rights they actually have against cruise ship companies.

The cruising industry is protected by some of our country's most unjust and archaic laws. In 1920, the US enacted the Death on High Seas Act, or DOHSA. Initially DOHSA was designed to provide a legal remedy for passengers who had fatal accidents at sea but with help from a powerful lobby, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, DOHSA has morphed into a bulletproof shield protecting wealthy cruise ship companies from grieving families.

For starters, DOHSA eliminates all non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, caused by the ship's neglect. This means that there is no legal liability for the loss of a human life, other than the deceased passenger's lost wages and burial expenses. In addition, plaintiffs are not entitled to a jury trial. In fact, last year a Miami Federal judge denied a widow's request to have a jury trial for her husband's wrongful death case against Royal Caribbean based upon DOHSA.

Imagine you and your family finally take that three-day Eastern Caribbean cruise embarking from Miami you have always dreamed of. On day one, your retired 84-year-old grandfather slips on a worn-out step in the ship's casino and hits his head. Sadly, he never recovers and passes away. If his fall occurred while the ship was more than three miles from the US, the cruise ship company is only liable to pay his funeral expenses. If and when an unemployed, retired, elderly or minor passenger fatally dies at sea, cruise ship companies have to pay virtually nothing.

For five long days, the world watched Carnival slowly tug the crippled Triumph across the Gulf of Mexico; while more than 4,000 passengers marinated in raw sewage. Many were surprised by Carnival's lack of urgency, but with DOSHA firmly in place, cruise lines are solidly insulated from liability - provided no one dies within the three mile limit.

Like Florida, most states have wrongful death statutes to compensate surviving family members for both the economic and emotional loss of a loved one. For example, Florida's Wrongful Death Act §768.21 recognizes that a child who loses a parent due to the negligence of another, loses much more than just financial support.

As a Miami maritime accident lawyer I have seen firsthand the devastation caused to families who have had a serious injury on board a cruise ship. I simply do not understand how Congress continues to permit the cruise-line industry to escape accountability for harm that they cause.

It is now time that we repeal DOHSA, or at the very least, amend it. Victims need compensation for their pain and suffering when a parent, spouse, partner or child accidentally dies due to the fault of a cruise ship. Our laws should be written to protect those who are most vulnerable from abuse from the powerful. The time has finally come to scuttle DOHSA.

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