As frightening as it sounds, passengers fall off or vanish from cruise ships every year. In fact, over the past six months, there have been several news stories on this topic. While rescuers found one woman alive after spending 10 hours in the water, a young college student was not so fortunate. Considering there are different dynamics involved in each case, the question is whether the cruise line has any liability and, if so, what.

Before the 2010 enactment of the Cruise Safety Act, there was no requirement for cruise lines to report incidents of passengers falling overboard or disappearing. With this significant change, cruise lines are liable when a passenger falls off the ship or vanishes, but only under specific conditions as follows:

  • Defective or Inadequate Handrails – Under the Cruise Safety Act, every cruise ship that calls on ports in the United States must have handrails above the cabin deck measuring no less than 42 inches tall. Inadequate or defective railing could result in a lawsuit against the cruise line for passenger negligence.
  • No Warning of Anticipated Rough Seas – Most cruise ships chart routes known for smooth water. However, on the open sea, an unexpected storm can quickly develop. As soon as the cruise line becomes aware of potential rough waters, it must notify every passenger. Because today’s ships rely on state-of-the-art weather and radar equipment, there is no excuse for not giving this warning. If a cruise line fails to let passengers know that the sea could become rough and someone falls overboard or disappears, the court could hold it liable.
  • Violence – Reputable cruise lines do not tolerate violence of any kind on their fleet of ships. If a member of the crew acts aggressively toward a passenger, causing that person to fall or disappear, the cruise line is liable. However, if the aggressor is another passenger, the only way the cruise line would be legally responsible is if it somehow anticipated the violent action. In other words, it is rare that an individual can hold a cruise line liable for passenger-on-passenger violence, even if someone vanishes or falls overboard.
  • Intoxication – The rules for lounges and bars on a cruise ship are no different than those on land. If a ship’s bartender serves a passenger too much alcohol and that person vanishes or falls overboard, the cruise line is liable. While cruise lines want people to have fun, they must also prevent intoxication that could lead to an accident or worse.
  • Search and Rescue – Once someone reports a passenger missing or overboard, the cruise line has the responsibility to perform “reasonable” search and rescue operations. If those operations prove inadequate to the point of causing severe injury or death, the cruise line is responsible.

No one can fathom having a loved one cruise ship disappear or fall overboard, but when it happens, there is legal recourse. Most importantly, a member of the passenger’s family needs to contact an attorney who specializes in either personal injury or maritime law.