In the 1950’s, ocean travel aboard a ship was something generally reserved for the wealthy. Today, the explosive growth of the cruise industry has made affordable vacations at sea a fun-filled possibility for many people.
However, before you pack your camera and sunscreen, you might want to know a thing or two about your legal rights aboard a cruise ship.
Not that you should reconsider going on your trip - the vast majority of passengers enjoy great food, exotic drinks, and fun family activities …all at a great price. Nevertheless, do not lose sight of the fact that you are on a 75,000-ton ship on the high seas.
We were reminded of this in April when the cruise ship Sea Diamond struck a reef and sank in the Aegean Sea.
Last summer, the cruise ship Crown Princess suddenly rolled during an officer’s attempt to place her on manual steering. The violent tilting resulted in objects sliding across decks, water spilling from pools, and injuries to dozens of passengers. Aside from such traditional perils of the sea, we have seen various crimes aboard cruise ships. These range from misdemeanors to serious felonies such as rape.
Although cruise ships can be fun places, if something goes wrong, you might not be entitled to legal privileges we take for granted within our state court systems. Many passengers do not realize they are not on a U.S. registered ship. Your ship might be registered under the flag of the Bahamas, Panama, or other sovereign state.
Be aware that a cruise line can impose its own statute of limitations when it comes to accidents. That may shorten the time you have to bring a legal action if you are injured during your cruise.
This includes injuries from the ship sinking, colliding with another ship, failing to take action to avoid known navigational or weather hazards, food poisoning, slipping and falling, being struck by an object from a deck above, or other mishap.
Many cruise lines allow you only one year to bring a lawsuit for your injuries. Compare that to the New York statute of limitations, which ordinarily gives you three years to bring such lawsuits.
Read the fine print on your ticket. If anything happens where you need to bring a legal action, you may be surprised to learn that you might have consented to legal jurisdiction in Florida or Washington.
Moreover, with criminal matters, jurisdiction can become complex, depending on whether the ship was U.S. registered, the crime occurred within U.S. territorial waters, or the victim or perpetrator was a U.S. national.
When it comes to safety and security, passengers should remember that a cruise ship is like a large hotel. Female passengers should be careful returning to their cabins late at night. Passengers should remember that if they drink too much, they could be vulnerable to the same dangers that they would be vulnerable to when leaving any bar at night.
If you go on a cruise this summer, have a wonderful time. Nevertheless, do not forget that you are on a ship at sea with three thousand other people, and that five decks below, the ocean is rushing by at twenty knots.
Tim Akpinar is a maritime attorney in New York and represents cruise ship passengers throughout the United States. Akpinar is a U.S. Coast Guard licensed officer for ships of unlimited horsepower and teaches law at SUNY Maritime College of Fort Schuyler, a state maritime academy.