I started working on maritime cases in 1982. Since then, the number of cruise ships have multiplied significantly, and the sizes of the cruise ships have grown to sizes that would never have been anticipated many years ago. These mega cruise ships can now hold thousands of passengers in addition to the thousands of crew member they employ. Of course, with the increasing size of cruise ships and number of passengers, there has been an increasing number of crimes occurring on board cruise ships, which have included rapes, sexual assaults, theft, murder and other criminal offenses.
When I first started, there was very little acknowledgment of problems regarding cruise ship safety. As time went on, it was believed that cruise ships tried to sweep under the carpet any criminal activity that was occurring aboard their cruise ships in order to maintain their public image and reputation for being “fun ships.” It was bad for their public relations for the public to be aware that these types of crimes were occurring on board cruise ships, and that minors were many times the victims. Surprisingly, there was no mandatory requirements for the cruise ship companies to disclose or report crimes aboard their foreign flagged cruise ships.
As the number of crimes as well as the number of lawsuits on behalf of the victims increased, there became an increasing awareness that crime, especially sexual assault and rape, was a big problem for the cruise ship industry. However, the problem did not actually get any better once a crime was reported aboard a ship. There were complex jurisdictional and other legal issues involved, many times resulting in a botched or inadequate investigations. Accordingly, it was rare, if ever, to hear of a successful prosecution of a perpetrator of any criminal activity aboard a cruise ship.
Then came the disappearance of George Smith during his honeymoon cruise aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. It was a scene out of a movie. A young, good-looking couple had just gotten married, a storybook wedding in Connecticut, and decided to take a Royal Caribbean cruise for their honeymoon.
On the night that George Smith went missing during his honeymoon cruise, him and his young wife were seen drinking heavily at the bar with other passengers, young men who had reportedly been involved in an alleged sexual attack on another passenger during this same cruise. They were seen drinking absinthe, a type of liquor which had been banned in the United States, that had been brought on board the ship. The bartender willingly supplied the shot glasses. There was no intervention by anyone from the cruise line company despite the heavy drinking and it being clear that George Smith had become so intoxicated he had to be helped by these passengers to his cabin.
Once in the cabin, loud noises were heard. It was reported by another passenger next door that there was fighting going on in the cabin. Again, no intervention. In the morning, blood was found in the cabin and it was discovered that George Smith was gone. The mystery was cemented and remains today as to where George Smith went and how. All that we know today is that he either fell off the balcony, or had been thrown off of it.
Many experts believed he was murdered on board the cruise ship. Because of the complexities of jurisdiction and other legal issues, the United States authorities were not timely involved, leading to contamination of potential crime sites, lack of appropriate investigation of appropriate or potential witnesses, and other failures to properly preserve evidence. As a result, the FBI investigation was pending for years without any prosecution and George Smith’s body was never found. The sad tragedy has been the subject of a book and a movie, and led to United States Congressional Hearings addressing cruise ship safety and security. I was the only plaintiff’s maritime attorney asked to testify at these hearings.
You can read the rest of this post here: Part Two