ABC Nightline is doing a story about a thirteen year old who was raped aboard a Carnival Cruise Lines’ passenger cruise ship during a family vacation. Sadly, sexual assaults and rapes occur aboard cruise ships with a much greater frequency than one would expect. I have been handling Maritime cases involving the cruise ship industry since 1983. I have watched the cruise ship industry grow tremendously. We all read about the new cruise ships that are being built that carry thousands of passengers. In addition to the thousands of passengers that must mix aboard the ship, there are the thousand plus crewmembers from all different countries who are onboard the ship. The sexual assaults that are reported often times involve a crewmember sexually assaulting a passenger. However, there are many reported sexual assaults involving a crewmember sexually assaulting another crewmember or a passenger sexually assaulting another passenger.
The cruise lines have become floating cities, with the dangers that are present in any city. The cruise lines often defend themselves by trying to point to crime statistics in big cities and compare them to the crime rates onboard their ships. The cruise lines argue that statistically the crime rate is much lower onboard a cruise ship. The cruise ship companies argue this demonstrates how safe a cruise actually is.
While I do not disagree that generally a cruise can be a safe and enjoyable vacation for the entire family, and that criminal activity, including sexual assaults, are not rampant aboard a cruise ship, the public needs to be aware of the dangers associated with cruising aboard a passenger cruise ship with such a large population of people from all different backgrounds and countries.
In the case reported by Nightline, a fourteen year old teenager was onboard with her parents. She reportedly was having trouble sleeping and decided to go by herself to an upper deck onboard the Carnival ship. A thirty year old Carnival Cruise Line employee from Indonesia then took her to an employee only area and raped her. When the crewmember was arrested sometime later, after actually being employed on another Carnival Cruise Lines’ passenger ship, he initially denied the incident. After he reportedly did not pass a lie detector test, he then claimed the sexual acts were consensual. However, a fourteen year old teenager is below the age where one can legally have consensual sexual activity. This is called statutory rape.
Since the crewmember admitted to having sexual activity with a fourteen year old teenager, he was guilty of statutory rape. He was actually sentenced to prison and was serving jail time in Orlando, Florida. This is one of the rare instances where we hear about a crewmember being convicted for the crime of rape. One major cruise line previously remarked how it had never had anybody successfully prosecuted for a sexual assault aboard one of their cruise ships in over twenty-five years. This statement was made supposedly to support the assertion that sexual assaults were not occurring aboard cruise ships. However, we have been able to obtain statistical information regarding the number of sexual assaults and rapes that the cruise lines admitted to, which demonstrated that sexual assaults and rapes were occurring at a much greater frequency than anyone knew or expected, and yet there had not been a successful prosecution of any of the perpetrators of the crime. This did not demonstrate that the cruise lines were free of the problem of sexual assaults and rapes. Instead, it demonstrated how difficult it is to prosecute an individual for such a crime. The difficulty in obtaining successful prosecutions has been linked to the failure of the cruise lines to properly report and investigate alleged sexual assaults and rapes.
I previously testified in Congress during Congressional hearings in which cruise ship safety and security was addressed by our Congress. I testified along with representatives from the FBI and the United States Coast Guard. I was invited to be a speaker as a Maritime Law expert. I was asked numerous questions regarding the legal requirements of cruise lines to report criminal incidents, and the legal requirements regarding security measures to be taken onboard cruise ships in order to protect the millions of passenger that sail on cruise ships each year.
Following my testimony in Congress, there were continued efforts to pass legislation to require the cruise lines to report crimes that occur onboard ships, and to add additional safety measures aboard their cruise ships, including additional measures to protect sexual assault victims. These efforts resulted in the passage of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act President Obama on July 27, 2010, which we have previously reported on.
In the case of the fourteen year old teenager raped aboard a Carnival Cruise Lines’ ship, the case was handled by a former partner of mine, Charles Lipcon of Miami, Florida.
While I do agree that sexual assaults are not rampant aboard cruise ships, they are a potential danger to anybody who is onboard a passenger cruise ship. The solution? Be aware that sexual assaults do occur, and that there is not a strong police presence onboard a cruise ship that would discourage an individual from committing such a horrific act. Therefore, if you have children, you must properly instruct them and supervise them during the cruise, and not assume that sexual assaults or rapes do not occur aboard cruise ships. It is not necessary to go on a cruise and walk around fearful that you are going to be raped or killed, as you might be if you are walking into a dangerous city that has a very high rate of crime. However, you must be on guard as you would be in any other situation. The problem has always been that cruise ship companies advertise the care free nature of a cruise, and the marketing of cruise vacations suggest to the public that there are no dangers aboard a cruise ship that one must be concerned about. This causes people to let their guard down and become more vulnerable to such acts.
Mark Gaouette, who was Head of Security for Princess Cruise Lines and an author of a book called “Cruising for Trouble”, said that passengers often do have a false sense of security once they step onboard a cruise ship. He said: “there’s a party atmosphere on a cruise ship,… the passengers don’t’ believe that there are any real issues or dangers to their safety until a serious crime occurs”.
Gaouette also alleges that cruise ships do not have enough security aboard. This was one of the issues we addressed in Congress, and something that I spoke about also. My experience had always been that there were very few security officers aboard ship, and that there background and training was also an issue regarding their expertise in handling the type of problems that do occur aboard cruise ships. We also address the lack of protocols and standards at the time regarding security aboard a cruise ship. Most of the laws were designed to address possible terrorist’s attacks and did not really address passenger’s safety. The increased awareness by Congress and the public following the disappearance of George Smith during his honeymoon cruise increased the focus on passenger cruise ship safety beyond simply threats of terrorism. My office represented the parents of George Smith in their claims against Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines arising out of the disappearance and death of their son, George Smith. During this case, we did delve more deeply into the investigation procedures and reporting procedures of the cruise line following an occurrence such as the disappearance of George Smith. There was much criticism of the cruise line following the disappearance of George Smith regarding the investigation and reporting of what likely was “foul play” resulting in his death.
Again, while many lawyers will try to create the impression that these sexual assaults and rapes occur on a very frequent basis aboard cruise ships, one should not be fearful of taking a cruise. As Mark Gaoutte, the former Head of Security for Princess Cruise Lines stated, it is a matter of a false sense of security. You do think you are safe when you are onboard a cruise ship, you cannot imagine that there can be a murder or rape that occurs aboard a cruise ship. It is not that we think they might happen occasionally. Most people do not think they happen at all.
The media exposure of the cruise lines, including the ABC Nightline story, brings more awareness to the public that sexual assaults and rapes do occur aboard cruise ships. The cruise ship legislation that was signed into law by President Obama is recognition of the fact that sexual assaults and rapes, as well as other criminal activities, do occur aboard cruise ships. Congress recognized the need for reporting requirements, better investigation procedures, as well as additional security measures aboard cruise ships.
One simply must realize that although there is a party atmosphere onboard a cruise ship, and that you should have fun when you go onboard a cruise ship, you can not fall into a false sense of security once aboard a cruise ship. Be aware. Make sure your children do not get into any compromising situations. Report any suspicious activity you observe. Make sure you report any crewmembers that you feel are inappropriate. Advise your children to be careful when walking around the cruise ship. Your children should be advised that simply because someone works aboard the cruise ship, they should not automatically assume that it is safe to be alone with that individual or to go anywhere with that individual without permission.
We are proud of our firm’s efforts in seeing better cruise ship legislation passed. We also salute the International Cruise Victims, and its President, Kendall Carver, who I met when I spoke in Congress. He has been relentless in his efforts to bring greater public awareness to these types of criminal acts that are occurring aboard cruise ships, and is relentless in his efforts to see legislation passed to improve cruise ship safety for all.