When a crime occurs at sea, determining which legal jurisdiction has the authority to handle the case can be tricky. If the ship is in international waters, the question of jurisdiction becomes even cloudier. A case this week involving the alleged rape of a minor female while at sea has many concerned about just how protected passengers are, especially women, from violent crimes like rape and sexual assault while on a cruise.

A Spanish court determined this week that they did not have jurisdiction over a man who was accused of raping a 17-year-old girl while on a cruise. After a case was brought in Valencia court, the judge ultimately determined that he has no authority over the case since the ship was in international waters when the crime occurred. Essentially the alleged perpetrator was set free via a legal loophole.

A change to the law in 2009, means crimes can only be tried in Spain if the suspect or victim lives in Spain, so even though the victim reported the crime to Spanish police and the alleged attacker was arrested in Spain, a trial cannot take place there.

The victim was a 17-year-old British girl who was on vacation on the MSC Divina with her parents when she was forced into a cabin and raped by an 18-year-old Italian male while the ship was sailing from Palma, Majorca. The crime was reported by the ship’s captain to port authorities in Valencia after the attack occurred. Police were granted permission to board the ship and arrested the Italian man. The female victim was then examined at Valencia’s La Fe Hospital, after which she continued the cruise with her parents. The Italian man remained in Valencia where he appeared in court.

The accused man appeared before a Valencia judge this week where he was told the court had no authority to handle the case for several reasons, including the fact that the rape occurred in international waters and the fact the ship was registered in Panama, which meant Panamanian authorities had the power to investigate the crime further. In addition, the judge stated that the victim was British and the accused was Italian, which gave those respective countries the authority to investigate the crime, as well. As a result, the Italian man was then released, which has many people understandably upset and concerned.  

MSC Cruises did not comment on the incident other than to say that they were conducting an ongoing investigation.

When it comes to determining jurisdiction, many different factors come into play when deciding who has the authority to hear the case. If the ship is in a port, and the crime is committed there, the port has jurisdiction over the case. Additionally, if the ship is in waters that are within 12 nautical miles from a country’s shore, that country has jurisdiction over the matter. If the ship is past that 12-mile limit, they lost jurisdiction over the crime, and the matter is under the laws of the ship’s registered country. In this case, the Spanish court determined that country to be Panama. If the crime occurs on what is referred to as open water, then the ship’s captain makes the determination on whether the ship will make an unscheduled stop at the closest port, which arguably is what the captain did in this situation.

When a U.S. citizen is involved and commits a crime or if the U.S. citizen is the victim, the FBI will conduct the investigation, especially in serious crimes. However, problems arise when the FBI cannot start the investigation until the ship returns. This delay can cause some serious issues in preserving the evidence properly.

It is unclear as to whether the crime will be handled by Panamanian authorities now that the Spanish court has released the Italian man accused of the crime.


If you have been injured on your cruise, on a wet and slippery deck, down a poorly lit staircase or steep gangway, in port on an excursion, or on a tender boat- it is important that you speak as soon as possible with a lawyer who specializes in personal injury claims against cruise lines. Most cruise lines, including Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian, MSC, Disney, Holland America, Princess, Costa, Regents Seven Seas and Oceania require that claims against them be pursued in a very specific place under very strict deadlines. Failure to comply with each individual cruise lines deadlines can result in a complete loss of any and all legal rights.

Aronfeld Trial Lawyers is a personal injury firm located in Miami, Florida since 1991.  We have fought hard to hold cruise lines accountable when they put their profits ahead of passenger safety.  We are available 24/7 and encourage you to contact us even if you are still on your cruise. The sooner we can begin our investigation and preservation of key evidence, such as the CCTV footage of your trip and fall, slip and fall, assault or other type of injury the more likely we will be able to understand and prove how the incident occurred. Remember, the cruise lines have the most aggressive and well-funded defense lawyers in the world- protecting their profits.  You need an experienced legal advocate in your corner who will fight to obtain the compensation you deserve for lost wages, medical expenses, transportation reimbursement and pain and suffering.  Call us today and speak with a cruise ship claims lawyer about your potential claim- toll free 1-866-597-4529, 305-441-0440, or by email. We are ready to help.


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