New legislation was introduced in April of this year aimed to broaden the damages available to plaintiffs in cases of negligently-caused passenger deaths that occur on cruise ships. If enacted, the Cruise Passenger Protection Act (CPPA) would bring what some might call a long-overdue strengthening of the rights of cruise passengers, since the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) has prevailed as the antiquated yet resilient federal law that has governed cases of negligence that result in passenger fatalities in international waters for the past 97 years.
Since being enacted in 1920, DOHSA has barred families of cruise ship passengers who have no dependents from suing for certain types of damages for their negligently-caused deaths onboard. These include non-pecuniary damages, or losses that aren’t associated with economic costs, such as pain and suffering, as well as loss of care, comfort and companionship. As DOHSA functions to deflect claims for emotional compensation, it can leave little recourse for families of retirees and children who died as a result of a cruise company’s negligence because they weren’t earning wages or providing financial support to anyone at the time.
DOHSA’s restrictive policy on damage recovery mirrored the judicial culture at the time it was enacted, but as public sentiment towards wrongful death claims changed, legislatures accordingly expanded laws in the 1960s to allow surviving families to sue for non-economic damages relating to the loss of life. Congress amended sections of DOHSA in 2000 that apply to airlines and land transportation companies to allow families to sue for emotional compensation if fatal accidents claim the lives of their loved ones, but provisions of the federal law that apply to damages for cruise ship passengers were left untouched–a successful outcome of the cruise industry’s lobbying efforts to preserve DOHSA’s corporate-friendly terms (they have reportedly spent approximately $30 million on Washington lobbyists since 2006).
Public concern for onboard passenger protection flared since April of last year, when news was released that two Nebraska retirees, Christy and Larry Hammer, died as a result of negligence onboard a riverboat cruise in Peru that was operated by International Expeditions of Alabama. The couple perished in a fire that was sparked by a power strip that had been provided by the crew and spread to their luggage while they slept. A later investigation of the fire revealed that no fire alarm ever sounded and the inadequately trained crew took more than 20 minutes to enter the Hammer’s cabin. In response to the incident, International Expeditions informed the Hammers’ daughters that the company had no financial accountability to provide compensation for their deaths under DOHSA. Since that time, their daughters Kelly Hammer Lankford and Jill Hammer Malott have been active spokespersons in the effort for legislative reform to amend DOHSA and expand cruise ship passenger rights and protections.
Aside from raising cruise lines’ accountability for passenger deaths resulting from negligence, sponsors of the CPPA intend to increase preventative action by boosting protocol for reporting and tracking onboard criminal activities, like physical and sexual assault. Proposed measures in the Act to achieve this goal include requirements for vessel video surveillance and preservation of footage, expansion of medical and safety training programs for crew members, and new time constraints for reporting criminal incidents to the FBI.