In 2004, The Miami New Times interviewed me as part of an investigation into how cruise lines treat their crew members once they become ill or injured. The article was entitled "Screwed If By Sea – Cruise Lines Throw Workers Overboard When It Comes to Providing Urgent Medical Care."
The article focused on the two largest cruise lines, Carnival and Royal Caribbean. Around 75% of U.S. passengers sail on cruise ships owned or operated by these giants. Virtually all crew members are non – U.S. employees, from countries like Jamaica, Trinidad, or Honduras where medical care is either non-existent or spotty at best.
Maintenance and Cure – the Oldest Legal Doctrine in the United States
Cruise lines are legally obligated to provide prompt and adequate medical treatment to their crew members whenever they become ill or injured on the cruise ships. The doctrine is called "maintenance and cure," and has existed in the U.S. for almost 200 years. It is one of the few absolute legal doctrines in the world. Traced back to the Medieval Sea Codes, the doctrine evolved over the centuries out of a concern that hard working crew members should not be abandoned in distant ports. Shipowners are required to provide medical treatment and sustenance so that the crew members will recover from their illnesses. In a nutshell, the maintenance and cure doctrine requires the cruise lines to treat crew members as if they were their own children.
Neglectful Parents in 2004
The "Screwed If By Sea" article revealed that Carnival and Royal Caribbean were very neglectful parents.
The article hit the cruise industry like a bomb. The public learned that the cruise lines were acting outrageously. The New Times revealed that Royal Caribbean kept a seriously burned crew member in his cabin with nothing but Ibuprofen, and then tried to ship him back to the Caribbean from Alaska with no arrangements for medical care. In another case, Royal Caribbean sent a crew member with cancer home to die with no medical treatment. Although the cruise lines were based here in Miami and their cruise ships regularly called on ports in Florida where appropriate medical care is readily available, the companies schemed to send the ship employees to the far corners of the earth where the crew members would languish and their medical conditions would undoubtedly worsen.
How Are Carnival and Royal Caribbean Behaving Today?
The article was published in 2004, five years ago. How are these companies treating their crew members today?
Carnival is doing better. Although some maritime lawyers may disagree, I have found that Carnival is making an effort to more or less provide appropriate care to their sick crew members. For example, we represent a crew member from India who suffered a serious knee injury. He developed osteomyelitis. Once we became involved, Carnival authorized and paid for treatment at the Mayo Clinic where the crew member received outstanding medical care by a team of orthopedic and infectious disease specialists. Carnival efficiently arranged for transportation, food and living accommodations. Our client improved. Carnival did what it was legally required to do. Our client benefited. A win-win situation.
Royal Caribbean, on the other hand, has gotten worse. In 2004, Royal Caribbean paid $25 a day toward the living expenses of its crew members – a figure which could provide a meager sustenance for some but not all employees. But now, Royal Caribbean provides only $12 a day. No one in the world can eat, cover their rent and utilities, and pay for transportation on such a pittance. Royal Caribbean knows it, but does not care.
Royal Caribbean has also adopted a strict keep-them-out-of-the-U.S. policy. The company saves money by sending its employee to places like Nicaragua and St. Vincent. But these places lack basic medical facilities and basic medicines. The crew member’s heath and life are compromised in the process.
A Royal Money Game
Unlike Carnival, Royal Caribbean is saddled with huge debts. It is struggling financially to bring the $1,000,000,000 Oasis of the Seas, an unnecessary extravagance, into service. But it is nickeling its crew members, literally, to death. We lost one client to cancer because Royal Caribbean refused to schedule a follow up appointment over the course of five months. Royal Caribbean is neglecting other crew members with serious medical problems, like debilitating neurological injuries and leukemia.
Royal Caribbean is one cruise line which continues to demonstrate that it cares more about money than its crew members.
Photo of cruise ship and Royal Caribbean crew member, Mr. Doran McDonald – Jonathon Postal, Miami New Times
Cruise Inc. – Big Money On the High Seas – CNBC