Cruise Operators Continue to Hide Behind the Death on the High Seas Act

Amazon River Cruise BoatOne of the very first articles I wrote when I started this blog almost eight years ago was about the Death on the High Seas Act. "DOHSA," as it is commonly called, is one of the cruelest and most unfair, if not completely callous, laws imaginable. When an adult child loses a parent on the high seas (defined as outside of U.S. state territorial waters, including the rivers and waters of foreign countries), the law permits, at best, the recovery of only "pecuniary" (financial) losses, such as lost wages (assuming the person is employed). If the person is a retiree, the only damages permitted are the expenses of burying their loved one. Emotional damages such as grief, bereavement, mental anguish, sadness and suffering are prohibited. 

The article was titled The Death on the High Seas Act - Screwing American Passengers for 89 Years. It explains how families are not compensated because DOHSA prohibits non-pecuniary damages when their loved ones die on international waters. The cruise lines love DOSHA. Cruise lines have lobbied heavily over the years to keep the ancient maritime law on the books. DOSHA punishes families when they lose a parent, or child, on the high seas, notwithstanding the negligence of a cruise line. 

Today, Jill and Kelly Hammer, the daughters of Larry and Cristy Hammer, were reminded of the cruelty of DOSHA when several newspapers covered the latest development regarding their deceased parents, namely that the operator of the La Estrella Amazonica was reportedly grossly negligent and caused the fire which killed the Hammers while they slept in their cabin on La Estrella Amazonica, a river cruise boat on the Peruvian Amazon. It's a sad story which we wrote about earlier last year - Deadly Amazon River Fire Update: International Expeditions' La Estrella Amazonica (photos and video).

La Estrella Amazonica has now been renamed by International Expeditions as the Amazon Star.  

The Wall Street Journal's article today, When People Die at Sea, Cruise Operators Often Get a Pass, is "subscription only" although the title suggests that cruise operators are literally getting away with, if not murder, deadly criminal negligence.  Another article, published by the World-Herald Bureau, titled Report on Gretna Couple's Death in Cruise Ship Fire Finds Fault with Ship's Safety Features, Crew's Training, reaches the same conclusion.  

You can read these articles and make your own mind up about the reportedly unsafe conditions aboard La Estrella Amazonica, the lack of training and qualifications of its crew, and the shifty conduct of the owner and operator of the river cruise boat, International Expeditions, and its president, Van Perry, whose underwriters demanded that Jill and Kelley agree to a gag order (which they rejected) before the cruise operator would meet with them and talk about the circumstances surrounding their parent's death. 

The point to come away with after reading about this terrible ordeal is that this is the exactly the result that the cruise lines want after cruise passengers have been killed. Christina Perez, PR person for the Cruise Line International Association ("CLIA"), was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that if DOHSA was amended to permit fair damages "droves of foreign litigants would "burden an already crowded U.S. judicial system." She also resorted to other scare tactics, saying that "insurance rates for cruise ships would skyrocket, increasing prices and potentially jeopardizing thousands of jobs created by the industry." 

This is hardly true. The cruise industry is a rich, billion-dollar business, where it's CEO's regularly collect tens of millions of dollars a year, and which registers its cruise ships in foreign countries like the Bahamas and Panama, in order to avoid the taxes, labor laws and safety regulations of the U.S.  

Ms. Perez later contradicted herself by claiming that the U.S. Congress did not amend DOHSA to permit additional damages (like it did in aviation cases) because the "maritime industry has a superior safety record."*  

CLIA has poured around $30,000,000 into the pockets of Congress in the last decade, according to the Wall Street Journal, to keep the DOHSA legislation which it loves. 

Have a thought? Please leave a comment below or join the discussion on our Facebook page. 

April 13, 2017 Update: Fox News Travel, today, published Cruise ship responsible for couple's death, report finds which covered the story and discusses the harsh limitations of DOSHA.  

April 14, 2017 Update: The U.K.'s Daily Mail, the world largest online newspaper, published Cruise company is finally found responsible for fire that engulfed Amazon tour boat and killed retired Nebraska couple.

Photo credit: Wall Street Journal 

*/The cruise industry, in fact, has experienced far more deaths on its ships than the U.S. commercial aviation fleet in the last decade, although commercial airlines transport over 30 times as many passengers a year. Read our article from several years ago: Cruise Ships: The Deadliest Form of Public Transportation?  

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Tragedy on HAL's Half Moon Cay: A Mother's Perspective

One of the purposes of this blog is to educate the public of dangers of cruising and the legal hurdles passengers face when things go wrong during a cruise.  

One of the first issues I felt compelled to write about when I started this blog over two years ago was the Death On The High Seas Act ("DOHSA").  DOSHA does not permit cruise passengers to recover pain, suffering, grief, or bereavement if a loved one dies outside of the territorial waters of the U.S.  DOSHA provides only limited financial damages, such as lost wages. 

If a child is killed during a cruise or shore excursion due to the cruise line's negligence, there is no recovery at all because the child is not a wage earner.  I wrote about this in my series of the "ten reasons not to cruise" -  Reason No. 5:  If You Are Retired Or A Child, The Cruise Line Considers Your Life Worthless.

Cruise lines love DOSHA.  It eliminates all consequences of their negligence and provides no incentive to act responsibly.  The cruise industry spends millions of dollars lobbying Congress to make certain that DOSHA is not amended to provide reasonable compensation to grieving families.

This weekend, I received the following comments from a Mom who lost her daughter during a  Holland American Line cruise, while on HAL's "private island" Half Moon Cay.          

Holland America Line's "Family Cruise" - Half Moon Cay

"My 3 year-old daughter was killed on Christmas Eve of last year while on a Holland America cruise with her biological father. She drowned in the designated children's swim area of a private island Death On The High Seas Act - Holland America Line -  Cruisein the Bahamas owned by HAL.  This tragedy occurred in plain view of hundreds of people present and right near where a lifeguard SHOULD have been actively on duty.

I would never have considered allowing her on the cruise if I believed for a moment that I was putting her in harm's way.

Imagine what it feels like to receive a phone call on Christmas Day and fully expecting to hear a relative calling with a Christmas greeting.  Instead, you are informed, with no preamble or warning, that your darling daughter is dead.

Holland America has made it perfectly clear to us that they feel they have no responsibility in the matter, and even if they did have any liability, that their interests are fully protected by the Death on the High Seas Act.  Never mind the fact that the children's swim area contained many bright toys to lure children into the water, and deliberately lulls the guests into a false sense of security with signs nearby that say "Paradise -- you'll want to stay forever" (or similar.)  Because the DOHSA does not cover pain and suffering (only loss of a paycheck, and let's face it, my daughter didn't have a steady job), they have informed me that I am entitled to absolutely nothing.

Thanks, Holland America. And a Merry Christmas to you as well.

Be aware of this stance before you go on one of Holland America's "Family Cruises" (one of their employees told me their target market is families for their Christmas Cruises).  Holland America is only too happy to take full advantage of their supposed protection under a law that they themselves have so much as admitted as being archaic.  For some terribly naive reason, I actually had hoped that instead of hiding behind the cover of an inappropriate law to protect themselves from their failures to provide a safe environment for my child, that they would actually be moved to simply do the right thing.  Silly me.

The DOHSA Act was originally passed in 1920 to cover scenarios of a fisherman (read: breadwinner) lost at sea.  The intent of the law was certainly never to cover the loss of a child on a cruise, but the cruise industry is taking full advantage of its existence and has opposed efforts to change this law.

The lesson that Holland America has taught me with their brush-off treatment of my complaint is loud and clear: pain and suffering are worthless.  I can't even bring myself to contemplate what their message communicates with regards to their perceived value of the life of my daughter."


 

Were you on the cruise or at Half Moon Cay at the time of this incident? 

Should DOHSA be amended to provide the same remedies as land based law?

Please leave a comment below . . .

 

For other articles on DOHSA, consider reading:

What Does BP, Al Qaeda and a Cruise Line Have In Common? 

Death On The High Seas Act Protects BP and Cruise Lines at the Grieving Family's Expense