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Overview of Cruise Ship Laws

Once they have set sail, cruise ships are governed by maritime (also called admiralty) law. This regulates ships in domestic and international waters. The jurisdiction of a crime depends on how far it occurs from land. Additionally, cruise ships may require passengers to agree to specific legal terms and conditions when they buy their tickets, with clauses related to jurisdiction and statute of limitations.

All of these factors make cruise ship laws a relatively complex matter. Yet passengers and employees aboard cruise ships are at risk of the same hazards and crimes as people on land. Anybody planning to take a cruise should be aware of the laws that will apply in case they face a situation requiring legal action. This overview provides a general understanding of cruise ship laws.

Duty of Care to Passengers

A cruise ship owes its passengers a duty of care to provide safe transportation. Cruise ships departing from the United States are considered to be common carriers. This means they owe a heightened duty of care to protect passengers from physical harm and ensure they arrive at their destinations safely. Passengers who are injured aboard a cruise ship may file a civil lawsuit against a number of entities, including:

  • The owner of the cruise ship
  • The company that chartered the cruise ship
  • The company that operated the cruise ship
  • The company that sold the ticket to the cruise ship

Lawsuits Against Cruise Lines

Injury or crime victims may sue to recover damages, including lost wages, medical expenses, and pain and suffering. The court in which the suit is filed may be governed by the terms of the cruise ship ticket. 

Most cruise ship tickets contain forum selection clauses and choice of law clauses. These specify in which state a passenger may sue the cruise line and what law will be applied. It is common for cruise lines to require passengers to bring lawsuits in Seattle, Miami, or Los Angeles, depending on where the cruise line is based. While a passenger may object to the suit being heard in a court far from their home state, these challenges usually fail. 

Cruise ship tickets may also require injured passengers to provide notice of the injury to the cruise line within a certain time period, usually six months. Even though the usual statute of limitations for maritime law is three years, the cruise ticket may designate lawsuits to be brought in Miami, Florida, which only has a one-year statute of limitations. 

Failure to follow the rules agreed to in the ticket when bringing lawsuits against cruise lines may lead to the lawsuit being dismissed.

Safety Regulations

Today, cruise ships usually use vessels registered under flags of various countries. As such, they are subject to the inspection laws of said country. Cruise ships that take on passengers at United States ports further are required by the U.S. Coast Guard to meet the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). This, and other international regulations, places strict regulations on various elements of ship safety, including:

  • Crewing
  • Crew competency
  • Fire protection
  • Firefighting and lifesaving equipment
  • Navigation safety
  • Watercraft integrity and stability
  • Vessel control
  • Safety management
  • Environmental protection

U.S. vessels must comply with Coast Guard regulations for the experience and training of crew and licensed individuals. 

Cruise Ship Employees

The Jones Act, which protects injured seamen from employer negligence, applies to most cruise ship employees. If they spend a significant amount (usually 30% of working hours) contributing to the work of a vessel in navigation, cruise ship employees qualify as Jones Act seamen. If they can prove that their employer was negligent and the negligence caused their injuries, cruise ship employees may recover damages, including medical bills, lost wages, lost earning capacity, and pain and suffering. This is more extensive than workers’ compensation benefits. 

Death on the High Seas Act

When a fatal accident occurs as a result of negligence or misconduct more than 3 miles from the U.S. shore, families cannot file a wrongful death lawsuit in state court. They can, however, file a federal claim. The remedies will be less than under state law and limited to damages like burial costs and lost wages. 

The Passenger Vessel Services Act

The Passenger Vessel Services Act is a trade law that forbids non-U.S. ships from picking up passengers at one U.S. port and letting them disembark at another. This means that most cruise ships can’t pick up passengers who missed a departure at a different port. 

The Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act

The Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act requires cruise ships to report incidents of serious criminal activity to the FBI. They must also take certain safety measures, including installing 42-inch high ship rails and technology that detects when somebody falls overboard. 

Florida Statute 910.006

This statute gives Florida law enforcement special maritime jurisdiction under several circumstances, including when:

  • The victim of an offense is a resident of Florida
  • The onboard suspect is a resident or citizen of Florida
  • More than half the revenue passengers aboard the ship embarked and plan to disembark in a Florida port
  • The crime could have caused a substantial effect within Florida

Getting Help with Maritime Law

As you can see, there are many different laws that apply to crimes and accidents that occur aboard cruise ships, which can get a bit complicated. If you have been involved in a crime or accident aboard a cruise ship and want to take legal action, it’s highly recommended that you consult with an experienced maritime lawyer.

Featured Maritime Injury Lawyers

Sotolongo Law

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