When People Die at Sea, Cruise Operators Often Aren’t Held Liable

Originally published in the Wall Street Journal

Christy and Larry Hammer, two retirees from Nebraska, were asleep in their cabin on La Estrella Amazonica, a riverboat built for adventure cruises on the Peruvian Amazon, when a power strip in their cabin caught fire and spread to their luggage and mattress. The smoke eventually killed them.

The riverboat’s fire alarm “did not operate at all,” and its crew, lacking training and equipment, took more than 20 minutes to enter the Hammers’ cabin, Peruvian authorities said in an October report on the fire, citing a litany of violations of the nation’s maritime regulations.

The Hammer’s surviving daughters, Jill Malott and Kelly Lankford, have come to believe their parents’ deaths could have been prevented, as more information has surfaced since the April 10, 2016 fire.

But because of a 1920 law known as the Death on the High Seas Act, the cruise industry enjoys broad immunity from damages in wrongful-death cases involving retirees and other passengers who have no financial dependents.

International Expeditions, the Alabama-based company that charters the cruise and helped design the riverboat, has told the daughters through its lawyers that it has no financial obligation to the family under the law, according to Ms. Malott and her family’s lawyer.

“Getting on that boat cost our parents their lives,” Ms. Malott said. “These companies are going to keep prioritizing profits over safety until there is some kind of consequence.”

The family’s search for accountability has revived a debate about a law enacted decades before the advent of the modern cruise industry, which serviced more than 11 million Americans in 2015, according to industry figures. Travelers aged 60 to 74 account for about a quarter of all North American cruise passengers. River cruises, in particular, represent one of the faster-growing segments of the business, the Cruise Line International Association, an industry group, said in its 2017 outlook.

While Congress and states have made it easier for families to recover damages for fatal accidents that happen in the air and on land, the Death on the High Seas Act treats boat passengers the same as it did nearly a century ago.

Congress intended the Death on the High Seas Act to benefit the widows of seamen who died in international or foreign territorial waters. It permitted the widows to recover financial support their husbands would have provided, known as pecuniary damages.

Recoveries under the law end there. Cruise companies have no legal obligation to pay damages for the deaths of passengers who had no financial dependents. 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.

In the past five years, cruise lines have used the Death on the High Seas Act to shield themselves from lawsuits filed by the families of an infant who died after allegedly receiving poor medical treatment by ship doctors, a college student with no dependents who fell overboard and a 17-year-old girl who was allegedly killed by bacteria-ridden food she ate aboard the ship.

Courts have held in several cases that the law prevents retirees from suing cruise lines for damages over the deaths of their spouses in accidents aboard ships. Many cases never make it to court. Ms. Malott said several lawyers turned her down, warning that the Death on the High Seas Act would preempt the family’s case.

Industry representatives said the law reflects international norms. If Congress amended the Death on the High Seas Act to allow greater damages, the U.S. would attract droves of foreign litigants, “burdening an already crowded U.S. judicial system,” said Christina Perez, spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association.

Ms. Perez said insurance rates for cruise ships would skyrocket, increasing prices and potentially jeopardizing thousands of jobs created by the industry.

The Hammers’ daughters could file a lawsuit in Peru, but their legal costs probably would exceed any damages they might recover, lawyers told Ms. Malott and Ms. Lankford.

“If you’re on a boat in international waters, if you’re a kid or a retiree, the value of your life is zero,” said Ms. Malott.

Van Perry, president of International Expeditions, said the company reached out to the family “on a number of occasions” to discuss the fire. Ms. Malott said the company and its insurer asked the family to sign a confidentiality agreement before meeting, a condition the sisters rejected.

International Expeditions, which said in its promotional materials that it helped design the riverboat, sent the Hammers’ daughters a check for the amount of their parents’ tickets: about $10,000. Ms. Malott said they returned it.

“IE remains committed to cooperate with the authorities and shares the family’s desire for information as the Peruvian authorities continue their investigation,” Mr. Perry said in an emailed statement.

At 139 feet long, La Estrella Amazonica holds 31 passengers. Its amenities include satellite internet and air-conditioned cabins “with private balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows so you are constantly surrounded by rainforest vistas,” according to an International Expeditions brochure.

Mr. Hammer, 74 years old, was a retired administrator at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Mrs. Hammer, 72 years old, had been a leadership-training consultant for Omaha-based Gallup Inc.

The fire started in the couple’s cabin, No. 27, on the first night of their 10-day cruise, while they slept, according to an Oct. 26 report by the harbormaster in Iquitos, Peru, whose office investigated the fire. No alarm sounded.

By the time the crew entered the Hammers’ cabin, 20 minutes and 47 seconds after first sign of smoke, Mr. Hammer was dead. The crew evacuated Mrs. Hammer but she died of carbon monoxide poisoning five minutes before arriving at a hospital.

The Oct. 26 report said the riverboat crew lacked emergency training and fire-fighting equipment required under Peruvian law, delaying its reaction time and rendering its aid “deficient” and “ineffective.”

International Expeditions had said in its promotional materials that the riverboat was built in compliance with international safety guidelines and would “exceed Peruvian safety standards.” The company removed the claims from the website after the fire.

Mr. Perry arrived in Peru about a day after the fire and told passengers an initial investigation showed one of the machines used by the Hammers for sleep apnea had caught fire, but he assured them that the boat was safe, recalled Sudip Dasgupta, a retired engineer from Wisconsin who was two cabins away from the Hammers.

The harbormaster’s report said an ”electrical extension lead” provided to the passengers by the ship’s crew short-circuited, igniting the carpeting near the Hammers’ bed and spreading from there.

Mr. Perry and a spokesman for TUI Group , the German tourism company that owns International Expeditions and the riverboat, declined to answer a list of questions provided by The Wall Street Journal, citing an ongoing investigation of the fire in Peru.

After TWA Flight 800 crashed off the coast of New York in 1996, killing 230 people on board, Congress amended the Death on the High Seas Act to allow families of international plane passengers to recover damages for the loss of care, comfort and companionship of their loved ones. Total damages can reach hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

But Congress 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 lawmakers who represent districts where the industry accounts for thousands of jobs. Travel law experts frequently cite the inconsistency in support of amending the law.

“Why should passengers on planes be treated better?” said Thomas Dickerson, a New York-based lawyer and former judge.

Ms. Perez, of the Cruise Line International Association, said Congress “chose not to pass a similar reform for the maritime industry, partly because the maritime industry has a superior safety record.”

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. Riverboats like La Estrella Amazonica are regulated by their native maritime authorities.

Democratic lawmakers have made several attempts to expose the cruise industry to the same damages airlines face, most recently in 2010 when legislation passed the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate.

Ms. Malott and Ms. Lankford have reached out to members of Congress, the start of a campaign to amend the law “to prevent another family from having to endure what we have,” Ms. Malott said.

Rep. Doris Matsui, a California Democrat who has previously supported amending the Death on the High Seas Act, is interested in reviving the legislation, a spokeswoman said.

Parents’ death in riverboat cruise sends Menlo Park daughter on quest for answers

Originally published at The Mercury News

Christy, far left, and Larry Hammer, third from left, died after their cabin caught fire while they were sleeping April 10, 2016, during a riverboat cruise along the Amazon River. Also in the photo are the couple’s daughters Kelly Hammer Lankford, second from left, and Jill Hammer Malott, far left, of Menlo Park. The daughters are still seeking answers from the cruise operator about their parents’ deaths. (Provided by Jill Hammer Malott)

Christy, far left, and Larry Hammer, third from left, died after their cabin caught fire while they were sleeping April 10, 2016, during a riverboat cruise along the Amazon River. Also in the photo are the couple’s daughters Kelly Hammer Lankford, second from left, and Jill Hammer Malott, far left, of Menlo Park. The daughters are still seeking answers from the cruise operator about their parents’ deaths. (Provided by Jill Hammer Malott)

Her parents lived four states away, but Jill Hammer Malott kept in close touch, talking to them every day and visiting them about 10 times a year.

Then in April, just months before the family was set to celebrate the couple’s 52nd wedding anniversary, her parents died in a cabin fire on a riverboat cruise along the Amazon River.

Malott, 46, a Menlo Park resident, accuses the company that chartered the boat of trying to sweep her parents’ deaths under the rug. The company, Alabama-based International Expeditions, hasn’t released any details about the April 10 deaths of Larry Hammer, 74, and Christy Hammer, 72.

Malott said she and her younger sister, Kelly Hammer Lankford, have had a tough time dealing with their loss.

“We felt like our foundation was ripped out beneath us,” Malott said. “I think both of us continue to lapse into really dark places, especially the way this has been handled, just kind of losing faith in humanity and the world to some extent.”

She said her parents were very healthy and just beginning to enjoy retirement. They were planning another trip in the fall, this time to Antarctica.

“They were in the prime of their retirement,” she said. “My mom was playing volleyball with (my) kids (last) August, she was diving into the sand. They were so young and capable. They got robbed of a number of good years.”

Kate Brader, an International Expeditions spokeswoman, confirmed Wednesday that the company hasn’t released any reports about the incident, stating as a reason that the riverboat, La Estrella Amazonica, is “owned, operated and crewed by a Peruvian company.” International Expeditions offers escorted tour packages across the globe.

“I understand the official investigation by the Peruvian Harbor Master and other Peruvian officials continues with no final official reports,” International Expeditions President Van Perry said in an emailed statement.

Malott disputes the statements, pointing to a copy of a promotional video she said was featured on International Expeditions’ website before the fire. In the video, a company official states, “Here is our beautiful, beautiful La Estrella Amazonica. We are so very proud and excited because we built her. It is the only ship we co-own and it is ours.”

“To refer to it as our vessel was simply a mistake and misunderstanding by a former member of (our) staff,” Brader said.

“IE has dramatically changed its tune about boat ownership since the tragedy,” Malott said in response.

Malott said she and Lankford launched their own investigation into their parents’ deaths in late April after their efforts to gain information from International Expeditions were “stonewalled.” The sisters requested contact information for the other 29 passengers who had been on the ship at the time and documentation showing why Estrella was deemed safe enough to be put back into the water 48 hours after the deaths.

When investigators arrived in Lima, Peru, where Estrella docks, they discovered that the cabin fire — which occurred as the couple was sleeping during the first night of the 10-day excursion — was caused by a power strip beneath her father’s bed, Malott said.

“It burned a hole through the bottom of the floor,” Malott said, adding that the company initially attempted to block investigators’ access to the boat. “IE did not allow the team to see several portions of the ship, and denied the team access to the historical records from the fire control panel and surveillance videos.”

Malott has spoken with some other passengers who said they did not hear alarms sounding during the incident. Smoke detectors were installed in each cabin, but none of the in-cabin detectors had any type of audible or visual alarm, she added. The investigators also viewed design drawings showing a number of alarm system components, but “not one of those was installed.”

She said investigators purchased a surveillance tape from a port captain, which she said showed 22 minutes elapsed after smoke was seen streaming out of the cabin before crew members entered the cabin.

“Rather than get my parents out, they stood around and talked a lot,” Malott said of the tape, which she said confirmed alarm components were missing from outside hallways.

A separate video shot by an amateur videographer that Malott said was leaked to the media showed the power strip had become “a melted piece of plastic.” She said she hasn’t viewed the video because it features footage of her dad’s body lying face down on the boat’s deck. Her mother, who was still alive when she was taken out of the cabin, died on the way to a hospital. Neither of their wedding rings were retrieved, and Malott suspects they were stolen.

Malott said she fears the boat still lacks surge protectors and fire alarms in the cabins.

International Expeditions’ president disputes part of this in the emailed statement, saying Estrella’s owner confirmed the boat’s safety with the help of independent experts.

“The vessel owner equipped the La Estrella with enhanced fire-detection and firefighting equipment, and provided the crew with refresher fire training,” Perry said.

Malott has turned her attention to warning others about the boat’s safety. The family has also set up a memorial Facebook page for her parents at www.facebook.com/RemembertheHammers.

“I feel a moral obligation to get the word out,” she said. “My parents went to bed that night and through no fault of their own never came off that boat, except in a box.”

After their parents’ death, sisters question safety measures on cruise ship

Originally published at Lee's Summit Journal

Last Christmas, after spending the holiday at her parents’ home in Omaha, Kelly Hammer Lankford waved goodbye to her parents. As always, they stood on their stoop and waved until their daughter was out of sight.

“I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if I’ll ever see them again.’ I think that’s natural as your parents get older. You wonder if something is going to happen,” Lankford said.

The Lee’s Summit woman remembered the fleeting thought after she received tragic news: Her parents, Christy and Larry Hammer, died April 10 while aboard a luxury cruise ship, La Estrella Amazonica, in Peruvian waters.

Their deaths, the result of smoke inhalation after a fire broke out in their cabin, has led Lankford and her sister, Jill Hammer Malott, to seek answers. Their own investigators have concluded multiple safety measures may have saved their parents’ lives.

The operating cruise line, International Expeditions, has offered condolences, including in an article last month in People Magazine. But the sisters said the company has done little to address their questions.

“There were multiple layers of failure,” Malott, who lives in California, said by phone. She added the family looks to hold responsible parties accountable for her parents’ death.

After requesting comment for this story, Van Perry, the president of the Alabama-based International Expeditions, said in a statement:

“As the official investigation continues International Expeditions and the vessel owner remain fully cooperative with the authorities. We also continue to give this incident high priority at International Expeditions. We extend our sympathy to the family. We cannot attempt to understand the depth of their loss, but continue to provide our offers of support to them.”

Lankford said that without much disclosure coming from International Expeditions, the family has “been digging for answers.”

The sisters’ hired investigators concluded the fire began due to a power strip in the Hammers’ room that did not meet flammability-protection ratings. The power strip that singed the carpet in the Hammers’ room went missing for 38 days after their death, Lankford said, and the family’s investigators have since been denied access to it.

The sisters said they also learned the Hammers’ cabin lacked a smoke alarm, and alarm sirens in the hallway appeared in the ship’s construction drawings but were never actually installed.

Surveillance footage taken from the hallway outside the cabin room shows a crew member spotting smoke seeping out of a light fixture, Malott said. Twenty-two minutes, in which crew members open the Hammers’ door multiple times without entering, elapse before Larry Hammer is carried from the smoke-filled room. Six more minutes pass before Christy Hammer is carried out.

“When you know people are dying on the other side of the door, how do you wait 22 minutes?” Malott said. “I don’t even know how that’s possible.”

Lankford’s mother had a heartbeat when she was removed from the room but later died after being placed on another boat. International Expeditions has yet to reveal where Christy Hammer was taken before she died, Lankford said.

After the Hammers’ deaths, Van Perry flew to Peru and spent the rest of the voyage with the remaining passengers, Lankford said. Those passengers were offered free alcohol and services. The sisters have asked to speak to those passengers, but International Expeditions has refused to connect them.

“We begged International Expeditions for information about what happened,” Lankford said, adding that the family also wants to hear about some of the positive experiences their parents had the day before their death.

Malott said she worried for the safety of the passengers on the ship after her parents died.

“When they put the boat back in the water, they had no idea what caused the fire, why alarms didn’t awaken my parents or what stopped the crew from saving them,” Malott said.

The company said in a release that after the Hammers’ deaths, the Peruvian owner of the vessel engaged independent experts to assess the cause of the fire, and the vessel returned to the water only after it was determined safe to do so.

International Expeditions’ statement appears to divest ownership of La Estrella Amazonica.

However, Malott referred the Journal to a promotional video on the company’s site, in which Kristin Day, the director of travel agency sales for the company, states:

“We just built our own, beautiful Amazon river boat called La Estrella Amazonica. We are so very proud and excited because we built her. It is the only ship that we co-own and it is ours. So the cool thing about that is we got to put in everything that we thought was really important.”

Emily Harley, a spokeswoman for International Expeditions, said Day was “obviously excited” and “taking liberties” when saying the company owned the boat.

“At no point has International Expeditions had any ownership stake in La Estrella Amazonica,” Harley wrote by email.

Safety assurances removed from International Expeditions’ website

After the tragic death of their parents, the sisters said International Expeditions removed from its website certain safety assurances, such as that its ships meet a safety-at-sea treaty and that its power strips have surge protection.

An investigation by Peruvian authorities into the incident is still ongoing six months after the incident, and Malott said it could take as many as 16 months more.

Lankford said her parents often sent postcards to her sons, and their youngest son still awaits the postcards.

In a postcard dated April 6, four days before their death, the Hammers wrote to their 5-year-old grandson, on a postcard bearing the image of Animal from the Muppets, “We thought you might like this crazy card! ... We will probably be on our trip to the Amazon when you get this.”

“He still wants to go to the mailbox every day,’” Lankford said.