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Cruise Ship Accidents and Liability

When people hear Royal Caribbean or Carnival Cruises, they think of a good time. You go on Princess Cruises or Holland America to get away from your problems. But even on vacation, sometimes bad things happen. Passengers might get hurt while on a cruise ship. To add insult to injury, they might end up with big medical bills. Injured victims might wonder where they can turn to make them whole.

If your shore excursion was ruined in a similar manner, you're not alone. You have legal rights under personal injury laws that protect cruise ship injury victims, but it can be overwhelming to know where to start. This article provides an overview of how to pursue a legal claim after a cruise ship accident.

Where and When to File Your Claim

You probably signed an agreement before getting on the cruise ship. The agreement will have all kinds of legal jargon and different clauses.

forum-selection (or venue) clause indicates the state in which a personal injury lawsuit may be filed. For example, it might specify Florida because many major cruise lines are headquartered in Miami. This is true for many cruise lines even if their ships are registered elsewhere. Despite its obvious inconvenience to plaintiffs living in other parts of the country, most courts have upheld these clauses as reasonable.

A notice-requirement clause requires the injured passenger to file a claim for damages within the period stated in the contract. Maritime law allows a relatively generous three-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims, but your state's laws might trump that generous deadline. A notice requirement clause may shorten the window to 12 months for physical injuries, and even shorter (potentially just days after the incident) for non-physical injuries.

This goes to show that it's a good idea to read the disclaimer on the back of your passenger ticket before boarding. As previously mentioned, you may have signed a separate contract prior to purchasing your cruise ticket. The ticket contract might contain additional disclaimers or limitations on cruise ship liability. For example, it may state that as a passenger on international waters, you may be assuming risks or accepting waiver of certain claims against the ship owner.

Cruise Ship Accidents: Determining Negligence

In tort law, the area of the law concerned with civil wrongs that result in harm, wrongdoers can be liable under different theories. Their liability may arise from intentional behavior or even carelessness (negligence). A wrongdoer can also be subject to strict liability, meaning they're responsible for harms even without being negligent or acting intentionally.

Cruise ship operators are not strictly liable for passenger injuries. Instead, they must be negligent or acting with willful intent. The determination of negligence under maritime law primarily hinges on whether a "reasonably careful ship operator" likely would not have known about the hazard that caused the injury. The law recognizes that it is not possible for even the most careful ship operator to foresee every dangerous condition.

More simply put, cruise ship liability hinges on traditional elements of negligence. In negligence law, a responsible party has a duty to behave reasonably in order to prevent foreseeable harm to likely victims. If your cruise ship is departing American waters, it would categorized as a common carrier under law. Common carriers have a heightened duty of care under which they must protect passengers from harm.

For example, a reasonably careful ship operator should know a railing is rusted and cracked. Regular safety inspections are routine. They should fix it before a passenger plunges into the water after leaning on the rail. Similarly, a cruise ship company should provide a safe gangway with accessibility that prevents fall accidents.

However, the same ship operator is not reasonably expected to predict an earthquake-triggered tsunami. A captain may be forced to make an emergency maneuver, causing minor injuries to passengers and crew as a result of rough conditions. Given the tsunami was not foreseeable, the cruise line would not be liable for negligence.

Proving Cruise Ship Negligence

In order to prevail, the plaintiff will need to prove that the cruise ship breached a duty of care. As discussed, cruise ship operators must take reasonable care to ensure the safety of their passengers. That includes doing everything to maintain the safety of people on board. A cruise line breaches its duty by being unreasonable in the circumstances, such as by:

  • Failing to make regular safety inspections (e.g. mechanical problems cause a crash)
  • Being careless about food sanitation in the cruise line kitchen
  • Hiring a captain or crew who are unqualified to run a ship

If you can show that your injuries were caused by the cruise line's breach of its duty of care, you're almost there. The last element to prove is your injuries. Medical records, photographs, and X-rays of your injuries are fair game. To help you prove your story in court, you may:

  • Find witnesses
  • Use an expert witness
  • Present some kind of evidence pointing to the operator's negligence

Sometimes, proving negligence is as simple as proving noncompliance with a given regulation. This is called negligence per se.

If an operator's negligence causes the death of cruise ship passengers, their loved ones may be able to file wrongful death claims. A wrongful death cause of action is separate from a negligence claim, though both claims may be brought in the same lawsuit.

Injuries Caused by Cruise Ship Employees

Suppose a passenger suffers a cruise ship accident injury caused by a crew member's negligence or willful intent. Even if a reasonably careful ship operator could not have foreseen the employee's actions, most courts hold the operator liable for these acts. This rule also applies when crew and passengers are onshore during a port of call.

One exception is the ship's doctor and associated health care providers. The cruise ship operator may not have liability for them as long as they are classified as independent contractors. That means they are not employees of the cruise line, and they are properly trained and licensed. In such situations, a doctor who performs improper services may be individually liable for medical malpractice.

In some situations, serious injuries can result without a cruise ship accident. For example, if the cruise ship chef or other employees serve bad food, passengers might get sick. If you've suffered food poisoning on a ship, the cruise ship operator may be liable to you under similar negligence theories discussed above. You'll have to show evidence that the kitchen was unsanitary or the food wasn't prepared safely.

Discuss Your Cruise Ship Injury with an Attorney

A cruise ship injury can not only ruin your vacation but can lead to a long recovery process and time away from work. You deserve to receive compensation for your medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. It may be in your best interests to file an injury claim against the company responsible. Contact a local personal injury attorney to discuss your claim. They can help you obtain legal advice on cruise ship personal injury cases.

A cruise ship accident lawyer is a type of personal injury lawyer with experience in fighting against cruise ship companies. This kind of maritime lawyer may be able to provide you and your family members with a free case evaluation. Fighting insurance companies is the last thing injury victims should have to do. Those who have legal representation can use accident attorneys in pursuit of more favorable verdicts.

Have your accident claim reviewed as soon as possible to avoid applicable state law time limits. Every state has a “statute of limitations" after which an injury case may no longer be filed.

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