Originally published in the Daily Mail
Nebraska's Larry and Christy Hammer, both retired and in their early 70s, died in April 2016 when a fire broke out in their cabin aboard La Estrella Amazonica cruise ship.
That fire, and the deaths of the Lincoln, Nebraska couple, were due at least in part to gross negligence on the part of the ship’s crew, a lack of appropriate equipment and a failure to follow safety protocols, according to a report completed by the Peruvian Navy earlier this month, as reported by Fox News.
But because of 1920's Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), that finding may not mean much in terms of liability for Expediciones Amazonicas, the Peruvian company that owns, operates and manages La Estrella Amazonica.
Neither will it affect the Alabama-based company that organized the trip, International Expeditions, which is owned by Germany's TUI Group.
DOHSA was originally passed to ensure widows of sailors who died at sea could collect their deceased husband's earnings.
The act provides that only compensation only be paid for wage earners, not for children or retirees, like the Hammers.
Even when the act does require payment of some kind to survivors of those who pass away at see, it does not provide for any additional compensation for pain and suffering.
The Hammers’ daughters, Kelly Hammer Lankford and Jill Hammer Malott, were shocked by both the report and the cruise company’s refusal to take responsibility.
'Arguing that DOHSA applies is merely International Expeditions’ attempt to avoid responsibility,' said Malott. 'This is deplorable given the egregious facts and the company’s misrepresentations.'
'My parents were incredibly thorough when they traveled,' said Lankford. She pointed out that both of her late parents held Ph.Ds. 'They traveled with American companies. They read everything. They watched every webinar.'
The fire that occurred on the first day of the Hammers' trip was started by a short circuit in a power strip that was provided by the crew, the report said.
The short circuit created a spark that spread to a suitcase, but also a mattress that was not fire resistant.
Mattresses aboard cruise ships are required to be fire resistant under Peru's maritime laws.
The SOLAS Convention, which is the international maritime treaty for the Safety of Life at Sea, also has requirements of the bedding to be used on cruise ships, which International Expeditions advertised compliance with in its promotional materials, according to Malott and Lankford.
But the report found that the bedding did not comply to those regulations.
To add to the series of events that led to the Hammer's demise, the fire alarm did not operate and 'the reaction time of the vessel’s crew was deficient and quite ineffective.' The crew took more than 20 minutes to rescue passengers, according to the report.
'They robbed our children of their grandparents,' said Lankford, who lives in Kansas City, Kansas.
'Not doing anything for so long seems unimaginable,' said Lankford, the older sister.
When the tragic incident first happened, Malott and Lankford, who were upset by what they said was a lack of information, ran their own investigation which, according to the Omaha World-Herald, uncovered many of the same troubling facts that were cited in the Peruvian Navy's report.
They hired private detectives in Peru, spoke to representatives of the state department and the Peruvian Embassy, and chased International Expeditions.
'There were so many multiple layers of failure on the boat that night,' Malott said.
'I don't want this to happen to another person. This should never have happened to my parents.'
The sisters also claim that International Expeditions promised unlimited time and space for the daughters' investigators to search.
But when they arrived the boat - deemed fit to continue its journey - had sailed off, and their search when it happened was limited to four hours and only certain areas of the ship.
At the time a spokesperson for the company said that the boat was cleared by six agencies who agreed it was fit to continue its voyage, and that an independent inspector examined the alarm and electrics.
But she would not comment on whether the crew were properly trained, and said she hadn't seen the recordings of the fire.
This week, the company issued the following updated statement to Fox News:
'All of us here at IE continue to be deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life of two of our guests following a cabin fire last year aboard La Estrella Amazonica, a vessel that we charter.
'Peruvian authorities continue to investigate the accident, and Expediciones Amazonicas, the Peruvian company that owns, operates and manages La Estrella Amazonica, continues to assist the authorities with their investigations.
'Given the pending legal proceedings in Peru we cannot provide specifics, but our highest priority remains the safety of our guests aboard our chartered vessels. We continue to review our operations to ensure we have the right protocols in place.'
James Walker, a maritime attorney, claims cruise companies often use DOHSA as a shield from liability when tragedy strikes, according to Fox.
'We receive on average a call a month from a family member who loses a parent or child at sea,' said Walker. 'So why should families in an air crash be able to seek their emotional losses against the airlines, but not passengers on a pleasure cruise ship at sea?'
The Cruise Lines International Association has previously spoken on the record on that issue.
'It is not correct to single out the cruise industry as opposing changes to DOHSA,' Christina Perez said, a spokesperson for the association.
'Numerous multiple shipping interests expressed concerns with specific changes to DOHSA when those proposals were considered by Congress several years ago'
Brett Rivkind, the lawyer handling the Hammer case, said it shouldn't even be an issue here.
'[I] would like to see the company step up to the plate and take responsibility when they are responsible and not use a law like this to walk away,' he said. He has previously testified before Congress about changing DOHSA, according to Fox News.
But Rivkind will try another legal approach to hold the cruise ship company responsible for its liability.
The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 prescribes security and safety requirements for most cruise ships that embark and disembark in the United States, but it doesn’t apply to ships embarking elsewhere.
Malott and Lankford are committed to seeing this fight through, and said it's not about money but preventing the future suffering of other families in times of similar tragedy.
'Our goal is to hold this company accountable in any way we can,' said Malott. 'Our parents raised us that when you see something wrong, you do what you can to make it right.'
International Expeditions sent a refund check for the amount of the Hammers' trip to Malott and Lankford, which amounted to $10,000, but the daughters returned it.
The family of the Hammers have not been received, or been offered, any other compensation from the company.