On January 13, 2012, the cruise ship Costa Concordia struck a reef of the coast of Italy. In a scene reminiscent of the Titanic tragedy, the ship flooded quickly and began to sink. It ultimately came to rest on its side in forty-five feet of water, resting precariously on an underwater shelf. The Concordia had 3,229 passengers and 1,023 crew members aboard at the time of the accident. While a large majority were able to evacuate the ship safely, reports confirm 25 known fatalities. However, seven passengers remain unaccounted for, including two Americans from Anoka, Minnesota.
Congressional Hearings on Cruise Accidents
The accident prompted Congress to hold hearings to learn more about how the accident occurred and how similar mishaps could be avoided. The hearing became especially compelling after a second event involving a Costa vessel occurred in the Indian Ocean. On February 27, 2012, a fire in the generator room aboard the Costa Conciere left the ship completely disabled and without power. Passengers and crew members languished without water and air conditioning for three days before the Conciere finally reached a Malaysian port.
On February 29, 2012, The Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee held a hearing and took testimony from industry leaders and people directly involved in the Costa Concordia accident. Lawmakers wanted to review current U.S. cruise ship safety regulations, and examine whether these standards were followed in the Concordia accident.
The overall consensus was that the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, ignored several safety protocols in steering the vessel too close to the shoreline. While several investigations are ongoing, a number of reports indicate that he overrode a pre-programmed route that ultimately caused the ship to run aground. Committee members were also curious about whether safety standards were followed as numerous accounts suggested that the call to abandon ship was not clearly received, and the subsequent evacuation was nothing less than chaotic.
The Committee also heard from Divya and Sameer Sharma, a couple from Massachusetts who were celebrating their anniversary aboard the Concordia. They described how the crew had refused to tell them that the ship was disabled and failed to tell them how to evacuate. They also explained how they felt betrayed by crewmembers who were so cordial and inviting before the accident occurred.
Cruise Industry Safety Records
While the Concordia accident was as catastrophic as it was inexplicable, cruise ship accidents are exceedingly rare. Christine Duffy, president of the Cruise Lines International Association testified that in the last nine years, cruise ships had 28 deaths blamed on operations, which included six out of 153 million passengers who traveled during that period. She also indicated that the industry was eager to learn lessons from the accident and had already made changes to passenger safety briefings. Instead of having them within 24 hours of boarding (as is required by current law), safety meetings would be conducted as soon as passengers made their way onto the ship.
U.S. Laws Covering Cruise Ship Passengers
A number of laws apply to U.S. passengers aboard cruise ships, including the Jones Act, The Passenger Safety Act (PSA), the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), as well as state negligence and wrongful death statutes. Determining which statute applies generally depends on where the accident occurred (i.e. in a U.S. port, within territorial waters or in international waters). With negligence claims, the same analysis usually applies regardless of where the accident occurred. Injured passengers must show that the cruise line failed to use reasonable care in protecting them or advising them of hazards. U.S. tort law may also apply when the contract between passenger and cruise line originates in the United States, the cruise embarks in a U.S. state or territory, and the passenger is a U.S. citizen.
What Congress Hopes to Learn
Passenger safety is a critical because perception is a powerful motivator. Simply put, if customers don’t think cruises are safe, they won’t support the industry. There is a great deal of money to be lost if safety issues are not addressed. In 2010, cruise lines accounted for nearly $38 billion in economic activity and supported 330,000 American jobs. More importantly, they have thrived during a recession that has crippled disposable income and has sent two major airlines into bankruptcy. Because of this, Congress is intent on learning as much as it can to help ensure a similar tragedy does not occur in U.S. waters