The cruise community has been closely following the sad story of 73 year old grandmother, Janet Richardson, who was dropped into the frigid Artic Sea two weeks ago during a botched transfer between the Ocean Countess cruise ship and an awaiting rescue vessel.
She died this past weekend.
Yesterday Cruise Critic U.K. posted an artice on its blog asking the question "Would You Sue" if this happened to your wife or grandmother?
The article was directly primarily to its U.K. readers and assumes that a bereaved husband who lost his wife under these circumstances would be legally entitled to significant compensation.
But in the U.S., sadly this is not the case.
If a retired passenger like Ms. Richardson was on an U.S. based cruise line like Carnival or Royal Caribbean which negligently dropped her overboard to her death, the case would be governed by a U.S. law called the Death on the High Seas Act ("DOHSA"). DOHSA does not provide any basis for the recovery by the grieving family members for their grief and bereavement. It also does not provide any compensation for the pre-death pain and suffering of the deceased passenger either. This is because the only compensation permitted under DOHSA involves "pecuniary" damages (meaning financial losses).
Pecuniary damages include primarily lost wages. But in cases of retired passengers (or children for that matter) they are not working so there are no such damages.
The only "pecuniary" damages when a retired passenger is rescued and died would be medical expenses (assuming the passenger is rescued and makes it to the hospital). If the hospital expenses are covered by insurance and/or by Medicare, there are liens which apply which will be asserted by the insurance companies and the federal government. The only other potential damages are burial and funeral expenses. However, if the retired passenger is not rescued or the body is not recovered, hence no obligation for funeral or burial expenses, there are no recoverable damages at all.
So before a passenger’s surviving family decides to file a lawsuit, the question not only is there is a reasonable basis to win the lawsuit, but what are the damages if the lawsuit is successful?
In the U.S., the only damages may well be the cost of burying your loved one. The expenses of hiring experts to prove liability for the passenger’s accident and to prove that the death was caused by the fall and shock of exposure to freezing water (as opposed to a pre-existing medical condition) may exceed the funeral expenses the surviving family incurs.
The cruise line defense lawyers understand this completely. In a worst case scenario, if Carnival drops your grandmother into the water and kills her, the most the cruise line will pay your family is the cost of putting her in a casket and then burying her in the ground.
Most passengers don’t understand this. The cruise line won’t explain this before you take your grandparents on a cruise. Take a moment and consider: If You Are Retired Or A Child, The Cruise Line Considers Your Life Worthless
DOHSA is an archaic law which was enacted in 1920. The cruise lines love it, but it is fundamentally unfair to the families of loved ones who die at sea. It provides no financial incentive for the cruise lines to improve their procedures to make cruising reasonably safe for the travelling public.
For additional information, please read our cases discussing DOHSA.
Photo credit: Patrick Hill via U.K.’s Mail Online