Cruise Industry Accountability Back in the Spotlight: U.S. House and Senate to Hold Hearings on Cruise Ship Safety
The U.S. House and Senate have scheduled hearings for February 29 and March 1, 2012 to address whether the cruise industry has taken adequate steps to protect cruise passengers and comply with newly enacted laws designed to make cruising safer.
A series of events prompted the Congressional hearings.
First, and most obvious, is the Costa Concordia disaster. There is not much debate that the cruise ship engaged in a reckless maneuver of showboating near the rocks of Giglio - apparently with the blessing of the cruise line - which endangered the lives of thousands of passengers who were further imperiled by the irresponsibility of the vessel's officers and the disorganization of its crew. Chaos and confusion caused by a cowardly to-hell-with-the women-and-children captain who managed to place his mistress in one of the first lifeboats to safety.
17 dead and 15 missing are the result.
Only after these deaths did the public learn that the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is suppose to oversee the cruise lines, did not even require lifeboat drills before the departure of ships from port. So much for the "stringent requirements" of this toothless United Nations' maritime fraternity. This is the madness which results when cruise lines are left to their own devices.
Secondly, and equally importantly, is the failure of the cruise lines, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Coast Guard to comply with the newly enacted Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act.
The new cruise safety law was designed to require the cruise lines to do things as simple as bore peepholes in passenger doors, and to have at least one crewmember certified in crime scene preservation. The Coast Guard was required to post accurate crime statistics on a web page based on crimes reported to the FBI. The purpose of the crime statistics was for the public to finally see truthful crime statistics of the thefts, homicides, suspicious deaths, assaults and sexual assaults which occur during cruises.
The cruise lines have failed to comply with many aspects of the new law.
This year alone I have seen a cruise line destroy evidence more thoroughly and brazenly than I have ever seen; refuse to release a rape victim's medical records to the victim as required by law; and refuse to report crimes in a timely and accurate manner.
The reporting system in place by the FBI and Coast Guard is a joke. Over the years we have obtained (through court orders) lists of rapes on cruise ships. We know that cruise lines historically have over 100 sexual assaults a year, in addition to thefts, disappearances suggesting foul play and physical assaults. But take a look at the FBI / Coast Guard on-line report of the last quarter of 2011 here - only 3 sexual assaults and not one single theft, physical assault, homicide or suspicious death for the entire cruise industry!
The problem is that the FBI is disinterested in involving itself in shipboard rapes, disappearances and murders and is leaving the dirty work to the cruise line security to investigate the crimes. But there is an inherent conflict of interest in delegating law enforcement duties to the cruise ship's security officers who have already failed the cruise passengers. One of our clients was raped by a security guard. Do you think the cruise line security department is going to build a case against one of their own? The bottom line is that many cruise crimes remain unreported by the cruise lines or not investigated by the FBI.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the FBI does not report crimes to the Coast Guard database whenever there is an open file. One thing that the FBI is good at is keeping its investigations open, even if there are no investigations ongoing. The Department of Justice rarely prosecutes cases after FBI investigations.
The International Cruise Victims (ICV) has worked hard over the past 6 years to bring the new cruise safety law into effect. Our firm has attended 5 Congressional hearings since 2005, 4 in the House and 1 in the Senate, before the new law came into effect. We have seen the dedication of the ICV members over the years. One of our clients, Laurie Dishman, has traveled to Washington over 30 times to lobby Congress for a law to protect the cruising public.
Its a real shame that the goals of the new legislation - greater accountability and transparency of the cruise lines and greater safety of passengers in the process - are being subverted by the cozy relationship between the self-regulating cruise industry and the FBI which has little interest in investigating cruise ship rapes.
So far, the entire cruise industry has refused to commit to send one single cruise line president or CEO to attend the cruise hearings at the end of this month. Instead the cruise industry will send Christine Duffy, the president of the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), who has been giving talking points on how to sell cruise tickets to travel agents by overcoming customer fears about cruising following the Costa Concordia debacle.
We will hear about how wonderful cruising is and how the safety of the passengers is the cruise industry's highest priority. Ms. Duffy will make these remarks while 2 Americans and 13 other passengers from other nations remain trapped dead in the sarcophagus of the Costa Concordia.
Hopefully the House and Senate will see through this happy talk.
The Concordia crash should be a wake up call that this is a self-regulating industry which needs a tight rein. The cruise line / FBI / Coast Guard reporting system is a failure. Congress needs to take a hard look at the cruise industry and the federal agencies which are making a mockery of the cruise safety law.