New legislation introduced in Congress this week would subject the cruise industry to damages for the deaths of passengers at sea who do not have financial dependents, altering long-standing legislation that limits such damages. The Cruise Passenger Protection Act, sponsored in the House of Representatives by Reps. Doris Matsui (D., Calif.) and Ted Poe (R., Texas) and in the Senate by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) and Edward Markey (D., Mass.) would allow non-dependent family members of deceased passengers to sue for damages for loss of care, comfort, and companionship where the deaths occurred in international waters as a result of negligence.
This legislation is a significant change from the legal standard that has governed the industry since Congress passed the Death on the High Seas Act in 1920. Under that law, cruise lines do not face exposure for damages for the deaths of passengers unless the passengers have financial dependents. That was consistent with domestic state wrongful death laws at the time, although most such laws have since been expanded either by state courts or legislatures. A 2000 amendment to the Death on the High Seas Act allowed families of plane passengers on international flights to recover damages for loss of care, comfort, and companionship, but the new bills introduced this week would mark an expansion of that standard to passenger-related fatalities on cruise ships in international waters.
While the damages component of the legislation may be the most notable, the bills include other regulations, including medical standards requiring a qualified physician and medical staff to be available for passengers; basic life support training for crew members; expanded video surveillance requirements, including a duty to preserve and turn over video records for litigation purposes; and a requirement that cruise vessel owners report alleged crimes to the Federal Bureau of Investigation within four hours.
Debate over the bills has already begun. Supporters have hailed them as important tools to improve passenger safety and cruise industry accountability. Opponents, on the other hand, cite increased litigation costs and exposure resulting from the legislation and increases in insurance rates for cruise ships that would be reflected in higher consumer prices.
The House bill is H.R. 2173, while the Senate version is S.965.
Reference: Jason P. Minkin and Jonathan A. Cipriani of BatesCarey LLP/batescarey.com