Sexual assault is an issue that has devastated the cruise industry for several years. Unfortunately, as each maritime lawyer at our firm knows all too well, not very many people are aware of this. For years, the cruise industry has been able to hide the number of crimes that occur on board, and instead has shared only minimal information with the public.
Though maritime law requires crimes to be reported to the FBI, Coast Guard and other appropriate law enforcement agencies, the fact that most cruise ships are registered in foreign countries and fly foreign flags results in a kind of loophole – one that lets cruise lines get away with their lack of reporting. By flying these so called “flags of convenience”, cruise lines can divert to the laws of said country when dealing with an allegation, which are much more lax than those of the U.S., and therefore, can either by some time with the investigation or avoid a harsher penalty.
One might think that an allegation as serious as sexual assault would trump this loophole, but the unfortunate reality is that the majority of the time, cruise lines are going to protect themselves, even if that means sacrificing the victim’s right to justice. After all, if a cruise line were to disclose all information on crimes that occur on board, travelers may be largely discouraged to book a cruise vacation out of fear they might become the next target, which means the cruise line would lose a lot revenue. The line might also be accused of negligence in failing to maintain a safe shipboard environment. Yes, things can happen that are out of any one’s control sometimes, but the majority of crimes and accidents that occur on cruise ships happen because there was a lack of safety. This lack in safety may be attributed to the fact that cruise line did not have sufficient surveillance equipment or security guards or even because it did not properly screen crew members or train crew in how to respond to emergency situations.
Though there are times when cruise lines report sexual crimes right away, there have been far too many times when not much has been done on the cruise line’s part to help victims. Either the cruise line stalled to inform federal and local law enforcement agents or chose not to do so entirely. This tends to happen mostly when the accused is a crew member. The fact that sexual assault on a ship is a very real threat is enough to scare even the most seasoned of cruisers, but knowing the assailant can be a crew member – one who may even have access to your cabin – is probably enough to discourage many people from booking a cruise.
Over time, cruise lines have developed somewhat of a standardized response to sexual assault and rape allegations. If a cruise passenger – or even a crew member – reports a sexual crime, it is highly likely that the cruise line will try to settle the matter as quickly and quietly as they can, and if possible, outside of court. It is also likely the line will try to intimidate the victim into keeping quiet about the incident, thus propagating the cycle of secrecy.
What cruise lines fail to realize is the fact that by making these reports public knowledge and making a significant effort to reduce crimes by increasing safety on ships in general, the number of crimes and accidents on ships would decline. The public is already aware that cruise ships are not as safe as cruise lines portray them to be due to the incidents that are reported by the media, such as the Carnival Triumph fire in 2013 and Costa Concordia capsizing tragedy in 2012. There’s no reason for cruise lines to keep denying the obvious fact that shipboard safety is subpar. But still, despite accident after accident and crime after crime, we haven’t seen all that much of a change in cruise line policies.
Enter Senator John “Jay” Rockefeller.
Senator Rockefeller has spent much of his life trying to improve maritime safety, especially within the cruise industry. After seeing the cruise industry’s continued lack of response to the growing crime and accident rate, the Senator has decided to hold a hearing on cruise ship safety – the second of its kind since last year. Find out more about the hearing and how sexual crimes on ships were addressed in Part 2 of our blog.