Wrongful Death Cruise Ship Accidents

The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) was passed into law in the 1920s to provide a way for sailors’ wives to collect the earnings of their deceased husbands after a death at sea. At the time it was the only mechanism for those women to receive compensation for their spouses’ deaths, yet it still strictly limits recovery to wages, and excludes any compensation for emotional distress or pain and suffering.

What does this antiquated law have to do with the modern cruise industry? A great deal, as is exemplified by the case of Larry and Christy Hammer.

Circumstances of the Hammers’ Deaths

A retired couple from Nebraska, the Hammers booked a cruise down the Peruvian Amazon through the U.S.-based company International Expeditions. As often happens, International Expeditions engaged a local Peruvian company that owned, operated, and managed a 31-passenger ship in Peru to cruise the Hammers safely down the famous river. However, their voyage did not end safely.

A fire broke out in the Hammers’ cabin, and because of the lack of fire-resistant mattresses, inoperable fire detectors, an inability to follow protocols, and ineffective and untrained crew, the Hammers tragically died. A report released last week determined that the Peruvian company operating La Estrella Amazonica was unequivocally responsible for the couple’s deaths. The Peruvian Navy stated that there was gross negligence on the part of the company. However, for the Hammers’ daughters and other loved ones, this report may not make much difference.

Where DOHSA Meets the Cruise Industry

A cruise ship accident that occurs on international waters, as well as rivers and other bodies of water belonging to foreign countries, falls under maritime law. This means cruise companies and travel agencies can successfully argue that DOHSA applies to the death of passengers aboard their vessels. The law limits recovery to wages of the deceased passenger, and when the decedent is a child or retiree, there is little to no financial recourse for loved ones.

In the case of the Hammers, the couple’s family may receive compensation only for burial costs because of DOSHA.  The U.S. agency, International Expeditions, claimed that DOSHA prevents any recovery for pain and suffering or other emotional distress. In this argument, International Expeditions is legally correct. However, in arguing for DOSHA to be applied in this, or similar instances, many people feel the cruise companies and travel agencies are morally wrong.

Future of Passenger Recourse for Cruise Ship Accidents

The Hammer case highlights just one of many instances when maritime law complicates or frustrates the process of recovery for a cruise ship accident. At inception, DOHSA and other maritime laws were passed to address the differences between processes, procedures, and accidents occurring on international waters, as opposed to on land. However, these cruise ship injury laws rarely account for the reality that passengers board large ships for pleasure and leisure, not transportation or employment.

There is pressure from cruise lines and large shipping companies to keep maritime law at the status quo, but a loud contingent of injured and aggrieved passengers and their families are trying to change the laws or their application. Recently, the airline industry became subject to pain and suffering damages for deaths aboard their vessels. However, it is unlikely that a similar change to the cruise industry will be occurring anytime soon.

When a cruise ship accident does occur, it is necessary to contact a Miami cruise ship injury lawyer with experience in and understanding of maritime law. Our Miami personal injury law firm has represented passengers against cruise lines  like Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian, MSC, Disney, Oceania, and Holland America for over 20 years. Our knowledge of maritime law, including DOHSA, its application, and other avenues for recovery, is extensive. For a consultation, call our office at 305-441-0440, or toll free at 1-866-597-4529 or send us an email at [email protected].