Senate Commerce Committee sets Different Tone for Cruise Ship Hearings

I reported that on Wednesday, February 29, 2012 the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation held a hearing to look into the Costa Concordia disaster. The hearing was stacked with witnesses who were friends of the cruise ship industry. The hearing was reported as being nothing more than a forum to praise the cruise ship industry, not critique it as it deserves.

Today, March 1, 2012, the Senate Commerce Committee held their hearing entitled “Oversight of the Cruise Ship Industry: Are Current Regulations Sufficient to Protect Passengers and the Environment?”

Chairman Rockefeller started off with a critical line of questions directed right at Christine Duffy from CLIA dealing with why the cruise ship industry can avoid paying U.S. taxes despite making millions of dollars in profits each year while relying on over twenty United States Federal agencies for assistance every time their industry runs into trouble. When asked if she thought this was fair, Ms. Duffy did not have a good answer for the Chairman.

I was a little disappointed to hear that Chairman Rockefeller only briefly discussed the Death on the High Seas Act and other maritime laws that result in passengers not getting adequately compensated for injuries and deaths.

Reports indicate that Senator Amy Klobuchar did take the opportunity to question Ms. Duffy about the Death on the High Seas Act. Although she avoided answering the questions during the hearing, she was requested to submit her answers in writing about what impact DOHSA has on surviving members not sufficiently compensated when their family members are killed aboard cruise ships. These written answers must be submitted for the record.

Ross Klein, who maintains statistics on crimes and disappearances on cruise ships, and often times critiques the cruise ship industry, testified. He did discuss the unfairness of the Death on the High Seas Act, and also discussed the cruise ship companies’ use of mandatory arbitration clauses as “job killers for Americans” because they create a disincentive to hire American workers.

I was glad to hear that this particular hearing before the Senate focused more on the true issues that must be looked at – at this time, instead of simply acting as a forum for the cruise ship industry to promote themselves.

There is a link to read the witness testimony and view a webcast of the hearing.

In addition, USA Today News issued an article called Senator Rips Costa Concordia’s Parent Company on Taxes.

A very interesting piece of information provided by Senator J. Rockefeller at the hearing when he was questioning the nonpayment of taxes by the cruise ship companies, is found in the USA Today article. Senator Rockefeller was quoted as stating: “The fact is that 1.1% in five years, $11.3 billion in profits is absolutely unthinkable to me,” Rockefeller stated. “We’re not very happy when they don’t pay taxes. To me, it’s amazing.”

It is amazing that the cruise ship companies enjoy such favorable laws yet continue to lobby Congress on a yearly basis to escape legal liabilities to passengers and crewmembers when their negligence causes injuries or death.

We know that in the wake of the Costa Concordia disaster there’s a lot of pressure on Congress to do something, as well as a lot of pressure on the cruise ship industry to show that they are stepping up to the plate to address the problems. The Congressional Hearings are a good platform for both Congress, as well as the cruise ship industry, to at the very least create the appearance that things are being done to address the problems and make the necessary changes. Only time will tell whether this powerful cruise ship industry can be slowed, and whether new safety laws and regulations will in fact be implemented that carry with them the appropriate mechanisms and incentives to make sure they are enforced and followed. There has been a lot of criticism of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act which was passed after the previous Congressional Hearings addressing cruise ship safety. Some of the criticism is that those particular hearings were prompted by public opinion and the pressure to address problems that existed at the time, but once things calmed down the focus turned away from the cruise ship industry and the legislation that was passed did not have much positive impact. I truly hope this is not the case again. I respect our Congress of course, and truly hope that the cruise ship industry, and their powerful lobbying efforts, will not be sufficient to defeat passage of positive safety laws and legislation, as well as to defeat efforts to do away with the archaic maritime laws that deprive passengers and crewmembers of fair and just compensation when they are injured or killed due to the negligence of a cruise ship operator.

Our firm continues to act as safety advocates for both passengers and crewmembers harmed at sea.