Originally published in the Wall Street Journal
Legislation introduced in Congress on Wednesday would expose cruise operators to broader damages for passenger deaths, bringing the industry in line with airlines and land transportation companies.
The Cruise Passenger Protection Act would allow the families of passengers who die in international waters as a result of negligence to recover damages for loss of care, comfort and companionship of their loved ones.
Rep. Doris Matsui (D., Calif.), Rep. Ted Poe (R., Texas) and Rep. Jim Himes (D., Conn.) sponsored the House version of the legislation, while Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) and Sen. Edward Markey (D., Mass.) filed a bill in the Senate.
While Congress and states have made it easier for families to recover damages for fatal accidents that happen in the air and on land, federal law treats boat passengers the same as it did nearly a century ago.
Cruise companies have no legal obligation to pay damages for the deaths of passengers who had no financial dependents, under the 1920 Death on the High Seas Act. That leaves little recourse for families of retirees, children and other cruise passengers who weren’t earning wages and providing financial support to anyone at the time of their death.
“Standards for victims’ rights should be strong whether on land or at sea,” said Ms. Matsui in news release.
In an emailed statement, the Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group, touted a 90% customer satisfaction rate and a nearly 70% repeat customer rate.
“Singling out a high-performing segment of the travel and hospitality industry to impose a new and costly layer of federal regulation is unjustified and unnecessary,” the group said.
The Wall Street Journal highlighted the Death on the High Seas Act in an April story about two Nebraska retirees, Christy and Larry Hammer, who were killed in a fire while on a riverboat cruise of the Peruvian Amazon they purchased from Alabama-based International Expeditions.
The Hammers were asleep in their cabin last year when a power strip provided by the riverboat crew caught fire and spread to their luggage and mattress. The smoke eventually killed them. An investigation by Peruvian authorities found that the riverboat’s fire alarm failed to sound, and its crew, lacking training and equipment, took more than 20 minutes to enter the Hammers’ cabin.
Through its lawyers, International Expeditions has told the Hammers’ daughters that the company has no financial obligation to the family, under the 1920 law, according to sisters Jill Malott and Kelly Lankford. The company declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation in Peru.
Since 2013, the U.S. Coast Guard has investigated at least 80 deaths aboard cruise ships, according to records provided to the Journal. A majority of the deaths are listed as stemming from preexisting medical conditions, but others resulted from accidents, disease and asphyxiation.
The Death on the High Seas Act mirrored wrongful death laws in the states at the time it was passed, but beginning in the 1960s, courts and legislatures expanded he law to allow surviving family to recover damages for loss of companionship and grief, said Andrew McClurg, a law professor at the University of Memphis who studies torts.
Congress amended the Death on the High Seas Act in 2000 to allow families of international plane passengers to recover damages for the loss of care, comfort and companionship. Lawmakers left in place the damages provisions that apply to passengers of sea vessels, at the urging of the cruise industry, which has spent about $30 million on Washington lobbyists since 2006 and employs thousands in the U.S.
The Cruise Lines International Association and its members say amending the damages provision would would attract droves of foreign litigants, burdening U.S. courts, and cause insurance rates for cruise ships to skyrocket, raising consumer prices.
The Cruise Passenger Protection Act would also create new requirements for reporting crimes aboard cruise ships, force cruise companies to preserve and disclose surveillance video and mandate new medical and training standards.