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How Often Does Sexual Assault/Rape Happen on Cruise Lines?

Unfortunately, rapes aboard cruise ships are not uncommon. Recently, a Holland America Cruise Lines employee was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for the rape and attempted murder of a female passenger.  This attack occurred on the MS Nieuw Amsterdam after the Holland America employee gained access to the passenger’s cabin using a master key.  He waited for the passenger on her balcony and as she entered the cabin, the employee choked, beat, and raped her.  He then attempted to throw her overboard from her cabin’s balcony.  In the attack, the woman passenger suffered numerous injuries including fractures to her spine, skull, and face.  Her life was saved when the criminal was interrupted by fellow passengers. The employee rapist escaped from the cabin by jumping from the balcony.  He later confessed to his roommate, ship security workers, and the FBI.

In 2010, Congress enacted the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA) in an attempt to protect passengers from crimes while at sea.  The CVSSA requires cruise companies to report crimes involving United States citizens to the FBI and to post crime statistics on a website available to the public.  The main force behind this legislation was Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). For many years, Senator Rockefeller has been on a mission to hold the cruise line industry accountable for its dangerous practices related to the safety of its passengers.

Just this last July, Senator Rockefeller held a Congressional hearing regarding cruise line passenger safety.  His passion for holding the cruise industry accountable for the safety of its passengers is commendable.  Among the issues discussed at the hearing were:

  1. Requiring a study of medical professionals on ships.
  2. Creating a Department of Transportation consumer protection advisory committee that focuses on the cruise industry.
  3. Requiring the cruise lines to report crimes within 24 hours after a complaint is made, make logbooks available to the FBI, and report a crime committed at a port to the FBI before departing.
  4. Modifying existing laws to ensure that crimes on cruise ships are fully reported to the public with information available on the Department of Transportation website.
  5. Creating a consumer protection website at the Department of Transportation for cruise passengers.

Back in 2006, Laurie Dishman was a passenger victim of the cruise industry.   She was choked and raped on a Royal Caribbean cruise by one of the line’s employees.  When Ms. Dishman reported the incident to the ship’s staff, they were slow and discourteous in helping her.  They made Ms. Dishman collect evidence in trash bags and didn’t take her to the infirmary immediately. They failed to administer anti-retroviral medications or give her another cabin for the rest of her trip.  Even after an FBI investigation when the ship finally docked in the U.S., her rapist was never arrested or tried in the United States.

Another sad story is that of a 15-year old girl with Asperger syndrome who was raped by both an adult and a juvenile while on a cruise.  The girl was participating in cruise-sponsored teen activities when the crimes happened.  The mother of the girl was under the impression that these activities would be supervised as was suggested in the cruise line’s promotional material.

When a rape occurs, along with the crew member’s criminal liability, there may also be civil liability attached to the cruise line.  The seminal case is Morton v. De Oliveira, 984 F.2d 289, 1993 AMC 843 (9th Cir. 1993).  In Morton, a passenger was allegedly raped by a crew member.  The court held that the passenger could recover against a shipowner without showing any negligence on the part of the shipowner.  However, other circuits disagree.  See Morton v. De Oliveira, 984 F.2d 289, 292 (2d Cir. 1993); Cruise York v. Commodore Line, Ltd, 863 F. Supp. 159, 162, 1995 AMC 339, 342-43 (S.D.N.Y. 1994).

Most cases against the cruise lines must be filed in Federal Court in Florida.  The language on the cruise ticket is controlling and mandates this venue.  Most passengers are unaware that by simply buying a cruise ticket, they are required to file suit in Florida.  They also are agreeing to a one-year statute of limitations within which they must bring a lawsuit if they have been injured.

In Florida, the controlling Federal Court is the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. They have tackled the issue of civil liability in cruise line rape cases in Jane Doe v. Celebrity Cruises, Inc., 2004 WL 2955003 (11th Cir. Dec. 22, 2004).  While on a cruise in 1999, Jane Doe (a pseudonym) was raped by a crew member when he followed her to a bar while in port in Bermuda.  The Court found that common carriers (such as cruise lines) are vicariously and strictly liable for the intentional torts committed by their employees against passengers, whether or not the act was committed within the scope of the employee’s employment.  In layman’s terms, this means that if a crew member rapes a passenger, the cruise line is liable.  However, comparative negligence principles may be used by a ship’s owner to reduce the number of damages available to an injured plaintiff.

Cruising is supposed to be fun and above all, safe.  As an attorney who focuses my practice on maritime personal injury matters, I witness the unsafe practices of the cruise industry on a daily basis.  Whether it is the cruise line using unsafe excursion companies, or hiring crew members who have not been properly screened, the cruise industry is in need of serious safety control.

Holding the multi-billion dollar cruise industry accountable for its unsafe practices is not easy.  The cruise lines routinely fight all personal injury claims very vigorously.  The LaBovick Law Group has a team of attorneys prepared to take on that fight.  The law on the water is different from the law on land.  That’s one of the many reasons why it’s important to hire an experienced maritime attorney. If you have been the victim of the negligence of a cruise line, call today for a free consultation.

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