Cruise Ship Strict Liability Law

Dangerous hatch and ladder incidents cause injuries on cruise ships - strict liability?

The same types of injuries that occur on land can occur in a cruise liner, or organized shore excursion. Circumstances beyond one’s control could result in an amputation, deglove injury, drowning at sea, laceration, a heavy hatch slamming you or your fingers, and even causing a severe brain injury, coma or tragic loss of life. In some instances even rape by a cruise liner employee or control agent. Crimes such like this can occur due to a drunken passengers or predatory ship workers, and can even lead to a missing at sea report after a sexual assault, to dispose of the murdered corpse. Some of these crimes can be stealing, or even robbery and theft of expensive heirlooms, and personal items.

The United States Attorney General reported that three out of every four crimes on cruise vessels reported to Miami law enforcement are sexual crimes that mostly effect women 21 years of age and under. But sometimes there can be facts like little boys being forced to give sex to a cruise ship employee, under threat of physical harm or even being thrown overboard, for example.

Is there Strict Liability in Cruise Ship Injury Cases?

Cruise vessels hired that also depart from U.S. waters are known as common carriers according to Section 3(6) of the Shipping Act of 1984. 46 U.S.C. Sec.1702(6). It is commonly accepted that a common carrier is under a “special duty” beyond reasonable care to its vessel passengers. This special duty means that a cruise ship must see to it the the cruise vessel vacationers get to the port of safety safely. The cruise liners must exercise the highest degree of care to protect passenger carried for hire against physical injuries and other types of harm. (See New Jersey Steamboat Co. v. Brockett (1887) 121 U.S. 637, 645-646; See also Restatement (Second) of Torts Sec. 314A (1965).)

The special relationship between a common carrier of passenger and its hire comes from the fact that the passengers are entrusting themselves to the cruise ship company’s protection and care. (See e.g., Holland America Cruises, Inc. v. Underwood (Fla.Dist.Ct.App. 1985) 470 So.2d 19, 20. (the Court found that common carriers have a strict duty to protect passengers from crimes on ships for hire.)) A cruise ship corporations has a duty of safe transport, including, inter alia, protection of ship passengers from attacks by crew members such as gang rapes, child rapes, sexual molestations, battery on shore, and other harms of a physical nature. (See also M.J. Norris, The Law of Maritime Personal Injuries, Sec. 3:3, at 62-63; Sec.3:12, at 78 (4th ed. 1990).)

The U.S. Supreme Court decided in New Jersey Steamboat that a passenger who had been physically harmed when he was violently removed from a restricted area of a vessel by a violent ship employee. The Court let it be known that since there was a contract for safe transportation, a passenger was entitled to be protected from a common carrier’s servants’ improper conduct and/or negligence. The Court reasoned that a servants’ improper conduct must be imputed to the master, or the carrier, due to the fact that the servants aboard the ship are hired to perform the contract to transport safely the passengers. This reasoning comes from the public policy and other case precedents set forth in railroad cases.

The high Court held that common carriers are under a duty to “absolutely protect” their cruise ship passengers from their servant’s misconduct, so long as the act is committed in the course of the servant’s employment. The Supreme Court reaffirmed Brockett in New Orleans & N.E. R.R. Co. v. Jopes (1891)142 U.S. 18. Another case, Jopes had to do with the train conductor shooting train passenger. The Court used the reasoning set forth in Brockett and expanded on original definition for common carrier liability, stating common carriers are absolutely bound to ensure that their own servants do not unlawfully assault or injure their passengers.

Jopes expanded Brockett by eliminating the rule that an employee is supposed to act within the scope of his or her employment. That Court held that the common carrier is strictly liable for any act of its employees against passengers. Just because Jopes had to do with trains and not ships, this is irrelevant, because both are common carriers for hire. Other examples of common carriers include limousines for hire, limo buses, railroads, bus companies and tour buses, taxis, airlines, and even helicopter tragedies caused by air delivery and tourist sight seeing tours.

In the case of Morton v. De Oliveira, 984 F.2d 289 (9th Cir.), cert. denied sub nom., Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc. v. Morton (1993) 510 U.S.907, a passenger asserted she had been raped by a ship’s crew member in her cabin, the California Ninth Circuit reviewed the issue of crew members’ sexual and other assaults on cruise ship passengers using the “reasonable care under the circumstances” discussed above, and held the ship liable for the rape.

This is just one of the many reasons it is so important to retain Ehline Law Firm PC. We can be contacted at 1-888-400-9721.


  • Strict Liability