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All aboard! But read the fine print first.
More than 14 million Americans went on a cruise in 2019. That number was just above two million in 2021, likely lower because of health concerns and economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Worldwide, the cruise industry accounts for about 30 million passengers a year.
Two million travelers is no small number, and it’s likely to rebound to previous levels as the pandemic falls to the rearview mirror and people resume vacations and activities they used to enjoy.
There are lots of reasons why cruising is appealing to so many people—whether you look for a Disney-style cruise where there are plenty of activities for your kids (so you can get some much-needed relaxation for yourself while they’re occupied!) or you’re an older adult who wants to see the world without the hassle of navigating your own travel.
Cruising is overwhelmingly safe. The U.S. Department of Transportation reported 81 “serious” injuries aboard cruise ships in 2019. This includes fatalities, injuries that required more than basic first aid, or manage damage to the ship. These injuries only include those reported to the U.S. Coast Guard, though there were other injuries that happened that were not reported.
The majority of injuries that happen aboard or related to cruise ships are slip-and-fall injuries on wet decks or stairs, food poisoning, recreational accidents, and similar.
Most common cruise ship injuries
You can be injured on a cruise ship in many of the same ways you could be injured if you’re staying in a vacation resort or participating in any type of recreation.
Here’s a look at some typical injuries that cruise ship guests can suffer while traveling:
Slip and fall accidents
A slip and fall accident could happen anywhere. On a cruise ship, there are certain hazards that are specific to that type of environment. For instance, there could be luggage in hallways that cause a tripping hazard, or there could be wet or slippery floors.
Food needs to be transported on the ship and should be handled and stored properly and in the correct temperature. But there have been instances of mishandled, poorly prepared or incorrectly stored food that have made people sick onboard.
Legionella organisms live within aerosolized water. Cruise ship travelers rely on potable water, and it could become contaminated with this dangerous bacteria. Inhaling or aspirating contaminated water could cause some to become ill with a pneumonia-like disease. If the water on the ship becomes contaminated with Legionella, it can spread from pools, hot tubs and showers.
Drowning can be an issue near any body of water—surely, accidents happen in pools on cruise ships—but if a passenger falls overboard, it’s a much higher risk.
Cruise ships are isolated from the rest of the world, but with ships that can carry up to 4,000 passengers, they operate like a small town.
With that many people in close quarters, sometimes intentional torts take place. Passengers have reported injuries from assaults, either by crew members or other passengers. These types of incidents can result in both physical injury and emotional trauma.
Cruise ships typically offer activities like rock climbing, rappelling, water sports, and even sky rides. Any of these can be inherently dangerous and passengers occasionally become injured.
There are some well-known cases of passengers who seemingly vanished from a cruise ship.
The FBI and cruise regulators found that the cruise ship was negligent in serving alcohol “indiscriminately,” which resulted in injuries and violence—and could have been the reason for Smith’s death.
While these frightening stories aren’t common, they do happen and questions arise about who is liable for these individuals’ deaths.
Can you file a lawsuit for a cruise ship injury?
Yes, but it might not be as straightforward as a typical personal injury lawsuit.
When you purchased your cruise tickets, there was likely a forum selection clause buried in the fine print. There could be language that limits where you can file a legal claim.
Cruise lines can include a “choice of law clause.” That means the cruise line could specify in what country a lawsuit must be filed... and if you’re a resident of the U.S. but the cruise line wants to apply Italian law, you could be out of luck. Italian law, for instance, caps the liability of cruise lines at $568,000.
Paul Turner v. Costa Crociere S.P.A. (U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit)
A decision issued in 2021 settled the question of forum selection clauses in cruise ship contracts. Plaintiff Paul Turner filed a class action lawsuit in Florida claiming that the cruise line’s negligence contributed to an outbreak of COVID-19 during a trip that began on March , 2020.
However, the case was dismissed based on the forum selection clause, not on the merits of the claim.
The relevant locations are:
- The cruise line’s parent company headquarters was in Italy
- The operating subsidiary was headquartered in Florida
- The cruise departed from Fort Lauderdale, Florida
- The cruise concluded in the Canary Islands (part of Spain)
There was a clause in the purchased ticket specifying that any dispute would be resolved by the court in Genoa, Italy and a choice-of-law provision that selected Italian law.
The Eleventh Circuit dismissed Turner’s case, siding with the cruise line. The court held that the Italian forum selection clause was valid.
Was the cruise line negligent?
Things happen, and sometimes it’s not anyone’s fault—it could be a pure accident.
For instance, in a news story published on April 4, 2023, a passenger on a Virgin Voyages cruise ship fell over their balcony shortly after their departure. The ship had recently left Miami en route to Honduras. The passenger died after falling from the balcony to the lower deck.
The cruise line did not immediately release details out of respect for privacy, but the spokesperson said that it’s possible that a medical emergency caused the person to fall. People can get sick and have medical emergencies on cruise ships just as they would on land, and sometimes things happen that cannot be prevented.
However, a passenger has an expectation of reasonable safety measures that should be taken by the cruise line. These include:
- Access to reasonable emergency medical services
- On-site medical facility with intensive care unit (ICU)
- At least one doctor and nurse on board
- Access to bandages, medicine, etc.
- Cardiac defibrillators
In addition to ensuring access to treatment in the event of an emergency, a cruise line is also responsible for maintaining safe and hazard-free premises for passengers and crew.
Premises liability claims for cruise ship injuries
Premises liability is the area of law that covers injuries resulting from a property hazard. Slip-and-fall accidents would likely be in this category, along with swimming pool accidents, injuries from falling objects, and so on.
The property owner (in this instance, the cruise line) is responsible for ensuring that guests on the property are safe from harm. If there is a hazardous condition, such as a known wet, slippery floor, then the cruise line has a responsibility to notify passengers and crew by posting signs or through other means.
What to do after a cruise ship accident
The first priority after any accident or injury is to seek medical treatment. Any crew member on the ship should be able to direct you to the appropriate place or person who can provide care.
You should also report the accident immediately. By alerting the cruise ship operator, it requires the company to conduct an internal investigation. If there’s any criminal activity, a cruise line with ports in the U.S. must report it to the FBI.
If you can collect some evidence, including photos of the scene of the accident, this could be important if you file a claim. You also want to take names and contact information of anyone who witnessed the accident. You should also make sure to maintain copies of any medical records created on the ship or at a port related to the accident.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.