Cruise line Injury Frequently Asked Questions

Regrettably, passengers get injured while onboard cruise lines. Examples of potential injuries to passengers are fractures, concussions, herniated discs, burns, physical assault and battery, sexual assault (rape), and death. The causes of injury are many.

Below is a list of some of the most frequently asked questions regarding cruise ship injuries:

What should I do if I am injured on a cruise?

The first thing you should do is carefully review your passenger ticket. Nearly all passenger tickets place severe limitations on your rights to bring a claim against the cruise lines. Generally, there is a provision that you must notify the cruise line of your injury within six months from the incident or else your claim will be barred. You should do this by certified mail – return receipt requested, keeping a copy of the letter sent. In addition, the passenger ticket most likely contains a provision that requires you to file suit against the cruise line within one year of the date of the accident. The passenger ticket will also dictate the jurisdiction and venue where the case must be filed. For example, some cruise lines leaving out of Florida require that suit be brought in federal court in Washington state.

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What law applies to cruise line injuries?

The applicable law of personal injury lawsuits brought by maritime passengers generally is the Federal General Maritime Law and the applicable federal statutes that govern accidents occurring on navigable waters. A different law may apply if the accident occurs on navigable waters of a state or on a foreign flagged vessel under circumstances that would make the law of the flag of the vessel applicable.

Practically all the large ocean-going passenger ships calling at American ports are under foreign ownership and foreign flags. To determine whether the law of the United States applies to a foreign flag vessel, the courts look to the general law applicable to contracts. If the contract is entered into in the United States, the voyage commences in the United States, and a citizen of the United States is involved, the law of the United States generally applies, even if the flag of the vessel is foreign.

Sometimes the tickets provide what is called a “choice-of-law” provision which may be enforced by the U. S. courts. For example, a United States court approved the choice of English law in a passenger ticket issued to a U. S. citizen on a cruise from New York to France. Another court has held that the law of Sweden applied when an American citizen purchased a ticket aboard a Swedish flag vessel in Sweden for a voyage from Sweden to the United States.

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What obligations do cruise lines have to passengers?

In exchange for the passenger paying the cost of the cruise, the cruise line issues the passenger a ticket for the cruise. The ticket is a contract between the passenger and the cruise line. Unfortunately, the ticket generally contains many harsh conditions that benefit the cruise line and severely limits the passenger’s rights.

For instance, the cruise ticket may include a provision which permits the cruise to disembark passengers who become ill in foreign ports. Further, the cruise tickets (contract) makes passengers agree that the cruise line can, at all times, with or without notice, enter the passengers cabin, search or screen any “guest” and/or personal effects, staterooms, personal safe or storage areas. The cruise ticket also often eliminates cruise line liability for malpractice by medical ship doctors or medical staff under the guise that they are not liable for any independent contractors, including medical staff, service on the ship. Cruise lines are not liable for shoreside excursions, limit their liability to a passenger for lost baggage, personal effects and stolen items from a cabin.

Your ticket (or cruise contract) likely includes the condition that notice of injury must be given to the cruise line within 6 months of your injury. Under this condition if you fail to notify the cruise line in writing within 6 months of your injury you may be prevented from making a claim against the cruise line. Not all tickets have this condition but check yours. Another example is a time limit of 1 year to file a lawsuit from the date of the initial injury.

Many tickets have written on the back a requirement that your claim for injury must be made in a particular state. For example, a passenger who lived in the state of Washington who boarded a cruise liner in Los Angeles and was injured while on a cruise off the coast of Mexico was required to file her lawsuit against the cruise line in Miami, Florida.

Another condition on the back of the ticket may limit a claim for lost or damaged baggage. In one case a court held a $100 limitation for baggage claims on the back of a ticket was valid and denied the claim of two passengers for $250,000 and $100,000 respectively for loss of jewelry during a 2 1/2-week cruise aboard the Queen Elizabeth II.

Other examples of conditions written on the back of tickets give the cruise liner’s the right to deviate from a published itinerary, another disclaims liability for the negligence of shore side excursions operators.

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Are there any limitations of what cruise line operators can do in limiting passengers claims?

A ship owner cannot limit its monetary liability by a contract. However, this prohibition does not apply to a cruise that does not touch any U. S. port even if the ticket was purchased in the United States. In those instances, a limitation clause may be enforced. Tickets on foreign cruises provide for limitations on the monetary liability in certain cases. Where the cruise originates in the United States the cruise line cannot limit its liability for injuries by a clause on the back of a ticket.

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Who do I notify of an injury and who would I sue if I wanted to bring a claim?

Normally the first paragraph of the ticket identifies the cruise line carrier. This carrier is who must be notified in writing about the injury. The cruise line carrier is also who the claim for damages is made against in court.

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What care is a cruise line obligated to its passengers?

The passenger’s claim for injuries against the cruise line is in negligence. The standard of care is that the cruise lines must exercise “reasonable care under the circumstances.” The operative words are “under the circumstances”. This is where the reasonable care standard may differ from land-based standards. A federal court has ruled that the “extent to which the circumstances surrounding maritime travel are different than those encountered in daily life and involve more danger to the passenger will determine how high a degree of care is reasonable in each case.” However, the cruise lines have no duty to warn of open and obvious dangers, such as no duty to warn a passenger of a ledge in the shower in their stateroom or cabin.

The legal principle of comparative fault is applicable in cruise line passenger cases. This means that if a passenger is negligent as well as the cruise line, the passenger’s negligent behavior only reduces the amount of recovery, it does not prevent a recovery.

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Is a cruise line liable if I am injured by an intentional act by a fellow passenger?

A cruise line has a duty to protect passengers from harm from a fellow passenger. The test is whether the carrier knew or should have known that danger from a fellow passenger existed or was to be reasonably expected and whether the injury could have been prevented. If the danger could not have been reasonably anticipated or the crew did all that was reasonably required to prevent harm, the carrier will not be liable.

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What about intentional acts by the crew against passengers such as battery and sexual assault?

There is a disagreement between the various appellate courts as to whether the carrier is strictly liable for the intentional acts of its crew. The majority of courts, like Florida, will hold the ship owner liable for any intentional acts of its crew members. Only a few courts, like New York, refuse to hold the cruise line liable for the intentional acts of its crew members. Generally this means that you must show that the cruise lines either hired someone that they should have known was dangerous or failed to get rid of the dangerous crew member once they became aware.

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What about malpractice by the ship’s doctor?

The carrier is not strictly liable to the passenger for the negligent acts of the ship’s doctor in performing his or her duties. Most cruise lines create the fiction that the doctor is an “independent contractor”. This is true even though the ship’s doctor may wear the same uniform as the other ship’s officers. The carrier, however, is liable if you can show a failure to exercise reasonable care in providing a qualified and competent doctor or for not supplying the doctor with proper equipment.

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What happens if I am injured while I am embarking or debarking from the cruise liner?

The carrier has an obligation to provide a reasonably safe gangway. This includes providing crew members to assist passengers if necessitated by the existing conditions. Cruise ships sometimes call at ports where they cannot tie up to a dock. In this event passengers are transported to and from shore by small boats called tenders. The cruise line under these circumstances has an obligation to provide a reasonably safe means for the passenger to get on and off the vessel.

If the cruise line does not perform the tendering service with its own tenders, it owes passengers the duty to use due care in selecting an independent contractor to perform this service.

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What about injuries occurring on shore side excursions?

Although shore side excursions may be purchased through the cruise line carrier, the passenger ticket generally limits liability in writing for passenger injuries on shore side excursions and the ticket may specify that the cruise line is acting as the agent for the shore side tour operator. In most cases where injuries occur, the claim can be brought only against the shore side operator and not the cruise line. Note, that on certain cruises, the cruise will visit islands owned by the cruise line itself. Under these circumstances the cruise line is held liable for injuries occurring on those islands.

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If I am injured, what type of damages can I claim?

A passenger may recover medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and intangible damages such as the loss of enjoyment of life.
If the injuries occur on a cruise ship that is on the navigable waters of the United States and within the territorial waters of a coastal state like Florida then state law will generally be applied to the negligence claim and to the damages that may be recovered. However, if the vessel is outside the state territorial waters, normally three miles from land or more, the general maritime law applies and it is used to determine both liability and damages.

It is necessary for physical injury or rape to have occurred in order to sustain a plaintiff’s claim of purely emotional injury. Without physical injury, a passenger cannot recover damages for extreme emotional distress.

In a cruise ship case, 207 passengers sued the ship owner because the ship encountered extremely bad weather which the ship’s officer knew of but did not avoid. The cruise line demonstrated that 141 of the passengers did not have any objective physical injuries and a court ruled that they were not entitled to recover for their emotional distress.

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What happens if someone dies as a result of injuries sustained aboard a cruise line?

If the death occurs within the territorial waters of a state, that state’s wrongful death law would apply. However, when an accident occurs more than three miles from the shore and results in death, the Death On The High Seas Act (DOHSA) applies. In this event, there is no recovery for pain and suffering. What this means is that the only recovery that can be made by the survivors of the deceased is the amount of money that the deceased would have contributed to their support and well being. There is no compensation for pain and suffering, or for emotional grief under DOHSA. This means that retired persons who are not currently employed probably have very low pecuniary damages. The same would apply in the case of a child.

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Contact Information

To contact us for a free confidential consult, you can call us at (850) 435-7000 (Pensacola) or (800) 277-1193 (toll free). You also can request a free private and confidential evaluation by clicking Maritime & Boating Evaluation Form, and your inquiry will be immediately reviewed by one of our attorneys who handles your specific type case.


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