Pleasure cruises bring risks, too

Families say tragedies expose cruise lines' limited liability

May 07, 2010|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

Cruise lines make their money offering vacationers more of everything: Sunshine, food and drink, excitement.

But when tragedy strikes — when a passenger is injured, or dies, or simply disappears — survivors say the cruise lines can be downright stingy: Reluctant to accept responsibility, tight even with information about what happened.

Long-established U.S. Maritime law limits the lines' financial liability, in the event of the death of a passenger, to lost income, so there is often no compensation for the loss of the very young or the retired beyond funeral expenses, legal experts say.

The death of Carol Martin Olson stirred an unwelcome sense of déjà vu among those who have lost loved ones about cruise ships.

The 71-year-old Reisterstown woman, a passenger aboard the Carnival Pride, died April 30 while on a snorkeling tour off Freeport in the Bahamas. Bahamian authorities have ruled the death an accidental drowning.

"My heart goes out to [Olson's] family," said Lynnette Hudson, 46, of Bear, Del, whose father died of smoke inhalation when his cruise ship caught fire off Jamaica in 2006.

"The family is going to be dealing with a brick wall, and the cruise industry is going to tell them her life had no value. They will not take responsibility for the things they should be accountable for," Hudson said.

Lanie Fagan, a spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association, said passenger safety is the industry's "number one priority," and that cruise lines are obligated to exercise "reasonable care in the sale of shore excursions." The companies also share a "zero-tolerance policy when it comes to crime."

But advocates for cruise passengers say few people who board the big liners for carefree vacations are aware of just how much risk they bear.

The issue is increasingly significant for Marylanders as Baltimore grows as a cruise hub. Five lines now sail from the Locust Point Cruise Terminal. More than 165,000 passengers left port in 2009 on 81 cruises. The commerce pumped an estimated $152 million into the local economy and sustained 1,550 jobs, according to the Maryland Port Administration.

Olson and her husband, Harry A. Olson, left Baltimore on April 25 aboard the Carnival Pride, along with several members of their church, Trinity Lutheran in Reisterstown. On April 30th, with the ship in Freeport on Grand Bahama Island, they joined a snorkeling tour they had booked through Carnival.

The tour was operated by a third-party contractor that Carnival officials say they have dealt with for 10 years.

Other snorkelers said the tour was advertised as requiring "moderate exercise." But they told The Baltimore Sun that they were taken to a reef where waves and strong currents quickly exhausted even relatively young, strong swimmers, pulling them away from the boat.

"I consider myself a pretty strong swimmer," said Lyn Halavats, 46, of Troy, Mo. She said she and her husband were among the first off the boat. "I wanted to get in as much snorkeling as I could."

But in just 10 or 15 minutes, she said, "I was pretty far from the boat, and I kind of started to panic. … I started to swim pretty hard, but I wasn't getting anywhere."

With considerable effort, she managed to get back near the boat, where she saw Olson, who still had a snorkel in her mouth, but appeared unconscious as passengers and crew struggled to get her onto the boat.

Passengers interviewed by The Baltimore Sun said crew members seemed unprepared, or unwilling to perform CPR, leaving passengers to attempt it. The boat was not equipped with ship-to-shore radio, the passengers said, and it took 90 minutes or more to get Olson to medical help in Freeport, where she was pronounced dead.

Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen contradicted the passengers' accounts. He said Friday that the tour boat crew had both radio and cell phones. They alerted their office, which brought an ambulance to the dock. Four of the five crewmen were CPR-trained, he said, but "since CPR was being administered properly by other guests, the captain allowed that process to continue."

Gulliksen said the weather at the time was "good," and the tour was on a side of the island sheltered from the wind. He said that while Carnival provides "general" guidelines, "the guest also must evaluate their own fitness level" in deciding on a tour. Refunds are available to those who back out, he said.

Jennifer de la Cruz, also with Carnival, expressed "heartfelt condolences" to Olson's family. Mr. Olson and his son, David B. Olson, were assisted in the Bahamas by a Carnival "Care Team."

Fagan, the industry spokeswoman said, cruise lines have a responsibility to "exercise reasonable care in the sale of shore excursions," and "a legal duty not to sell excursions they believe to be unsafe." Carnival has suspended its contract with the tour provider.

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