This month is the 25th year anniversary of the death of cruise ship passenger Leon Klinghoffer, an American Jew, who was killed by Palestinian terrorists who hijacked the cruise ship he was sailing on with his wife in the Mediterranean Sea in 1985.
Mr. Klinghoffer, age 69, was from New York City and was vacationing with his wife, Marilyn, and their friends when four heavily armed terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship, after it left Port Said, Egypt. Although Mr. Klinghoffer was disabled and in a wheelchair, the terrorists shot him in the chest and head, and then forced two crew members to dump him and the wheelchair he was confined to over the side of the cruise ship.
The terrorists demanded the captain sail the cruise ship to Syria and Israel release 50 Palestinian prisoners. After a two-day drama, the hijackers surrendered in exchange for a pledge of safe passage out of Egypt to Tunisia. But when an Egyptian jet tried to fly the hijackers away from justice, U.S. Navy F-14 fighters intercepted the jet and forced it to land in Sicily. The terrorists were taken into custody by Italian authorities. The four terrorists were convicted and sentenced to jail, but a "mediator," Abu Abbas, from the Palestinian Liberation Army (PLO) who planned the hijacking, was permitted to leave Italy to the outrage of Americans. (The U.S. Army subsequently captured Abbas during the 2003 invasion of Iraq).
The tragic incident is known for the brutal nature of the Palestinian terrorists against Mr. Klinghoffer, the involvement of the PLO, and the bold action of President Reagan in foiling the terrorists' escape.
But the the incident is also well known in legal circles for demonstrating the extraordinary steps which cruise lines take to limit their liability.
Mrs. Klinghoffer and the estate of Leon Klinghoffer (daughters Lisa and Ilsa were the administrators) filed suit in the Southern District of New York against the owner / operator / charterer of the Achille Lauro, travel agencies, various other defendants and, eventually, the PLO. Other passengers who were aboard the Achille Lauro during the hijacking also filed suit.
The families sued the cruise line defendants for failing to have adequate security to protect the passengers from the terrorist attack.
The cruise ship was operated by the Lauro Line and marketed by the Chandris Line whose risk management department was based in New York City. (The claims supervisor subsequently went to work for Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises).
Rather than trying to reach a settlement with the grieving family, the cruise line defendants threw up every obstacle imaginable to prevent the Klinghoffer family from obtaining compensation. The cruise line denied responsibility and claimed that the attack was "unforseeable." They filed motions to dismiss claiming that they did not engage in business in the U.S. They argued that the forum selection clause (which we have discussed in other articles) in the passenger ticket limited their liability to only $10,000 and, in any event, any lawsuit had to be brought in Naples, Italy. The cruise line defendant then filed claims against the PLO, arguing that if anyone should be responsible for Mr. Klinghoffer's death it was the PLO for planning the hijacking of the cruise ship.
The lawsuits lasted over 10 years, at great emotional and financial expense of the Klinghoffer family.
Finally, the cases were resolved shortly before trial when the PLO made a confidential financial settlement which resulted in the creation of a non-profit organization, the Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer Memorial Foundation.
As a result of the ordeal, our U.S. Congress enacted legislation which provides a basis to sue terrorist organizations when they are involved in the deaths of U.S. citizens. Cruise lines, however, remain free to use forum selection clauses and contractual limitations of liability to make it difficult for Americans to obtain compensation.
The lasting maritime law implications of Mr. Klinghoffer's death is that no cruise line can realistically claim that the hijacking of a cruise ship by a terrorist organization is "unforeseeable" - given the vivid memories of that terrible day twenty five years ago on the Achille Lauro.
For additional information, consider reading:
Achille Lauro cruise ship photo Wikipedia
Klinghoffer daughters photo Bondareff / AP (via NY Daily News)
Video YouTube aReaganDesignee