What Laws Do Cruise Ships Follow at Sea?

What Laws Do Cruise Ships Follow at Sea

It may be tempting to want to go on vacation to get away from life’s rules and restrictions, thinking that this mindset extends to when you are on a cruise ship, but quite the opposite is true. Cruise ships have their own set of laws and regulations that must be followed at sea.  Here’s an in depth look at the laws cruise ships must follow at sea. 

Maritime Law 

After a cruise ship sets sail, the vessel itself is governed by what is referred to as maritime law. The jurisdiction of what country governs the vessel depends on how far away from land the ship was when a crime occurred. 

Also, several factors come into play when determining how a crime on a ship is handled, and these are often found in the fine print on the back of your ticket. When purchasing tickets, passengers agree to follow the regulations listed within this fine print whether they are aware of them or not. 

All cruise ships are required to register in a country, and each cruise ship flies the flag of the country where it is registered. For example, the majority of Carnival Cruise Line vessels are registered in Panama, with a few of their vessels registered in the Bahamas and Malta.  Therefore, the laws of that specific country are what are followed while on the open waters under maritime law. However, the laws of other countries may apply if the vessel is docked in a foreign country or is within the waters of that country. Ultimately, determining jurisdiction depends heavily on the territory the vessel is in when the crime occurs. 

Maritime law divides legal jurisdiction into four distinct categories: internal waters, territorial waters, contiguous zones, and international waters or high seas.

Internal waters include areas such as ports. For example, when a ship is docked at a port, it is said to be in internal waters. Therefore, the laws of that country where the port is located apply to the ship and all passengers and crew members.

Territorial waters start at the coastline and go up to 12 miles out. If a ship leaves a U.S. port and is only five miles away from the coastline, the vessel is said to be in territorial waters and is governed by the laws of the U.S.  

Another tricky area of jurisdiction is known as the contiguous zone. This area is between 12 miles to 24 miles from the country’s coastline. Every country retains certain rights within this zone, and this includes patrolling the country’s borders. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard is permitted to board any ship within a contiguous zone if drug smuggling is suspected on the ship. 

However, once the ship is past 24 miles from the coastline, the vessel is now in what is known as international waters. At this point, the laws of the country whose flag the ship is flying govern. 

Duty of Care under Maritime Law

Passengers have certain retained rights while on a cruise ship, especially when it comes to negligence of the cruise line. Under maritime law, all cruise lines owe a duty of care to their passengers. This duty of care includes providing a safe and secure environment for all guests on the ship, making sure that all crew members have gone through a thorough background check and training for their specific role, and making sure that the ship is well-maintained and in good condition. 

The cruise line is also required to make sure that all passengers arrive at their destination safely. The cruise line assumes full responsibility that no harm or injury occurs to a passenger while on board, including accidents, intentional harm, and even unforeseen events. As a result, if a passenger is hurt while on a cruise ship, he or she may file a civil lawsuit against the owner of the vessel and its operator. 

Cruise ships are meant to be safe places for passengers, but this does not mean that they are completely immune from potential criminal activity or accidents. This duty of care is what helps determine how to handle these situations if they do arise, along with several other policies on the ship.

Cruise Security

Cruise ships do not have uniformed policemen on deck as would be seen on land, but each cruise line has its own security detail, which includes video surveillance, security checkpoints for staff, crew, and passengers, and baggage checkpoints. Cruise ships also keep records of every person on board for that particular sailing. This information comes in handy in the event the unthinkable occurs and someone falls overboard or goes missing. 

Cruise security checks all baggage to ensure that passengers and crew members do not bring on items that are strictly prohibited, including firearms, weapons, drugs, or any other belongings suggested on the sample prohibited items list which has been written by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

Security officers are also on board throughout the ship, on call 24/7, and are professionally trained to handle criminal activity onboard. Security is often responsible for handling physical altercations on the ship or public intoxication, along with a number of other crimes. 

For ships either beginning or ending their trips at a U.S. port, each vessel is legally required to have at least one crew member on the ship who is trained in crime prevention, detection and reporting.

Jail at Sea 

In most circumstances on land, if you commit a serious crime, you will spend time in jail. The same qualifies for being at sea. Yes, cruise ships come equipped with their very own jail cells to hold individuals who have committed serious crimes at sea.  Jail is appropriate for criminal behavior that is out of control. At this point, the offender is taken to a lower-level deck where the jail, also known as a “brig” is located. A brig is a nautical term for a jail cell.  These brigs do not look like your average jail cells, however. They are normally cabins with no amenities that are isolated from others on the ship and are monitored with heightened security. 

Hauling a passenger or crew member off to a brig is normally a last resort. Normally, guests are locked in their own cabins with security outside of the door first before they are taken to a ship jail cell. Passengers are locked in their cabin or the jail cell usually until the end of their sailing or when the ship reaches the next port, for particularly serious crimes. 

It helps to know what type of criminal behavior normally results in being confined in a cabin or brig. Some of the more common conduct that puts someone in the brig include committing acts of violence against other passengers or crew members, not following the cruise ship’s safety rules, stealing from another passenger or business on the vessel, possession illegal drugs or other items, or more serious crimes such as sexual assault or even murder.

Once a passenger is put in the brig, he or she will stay there until the passenger can either be turned over to authorities at the next port of call or until he or she can disembark from the vessel, depending on the circumstances involved.     

Injured or Sick at Sea 

Many passengers assume they will have the same medical care and treatment on a cruise as they would on land, which is simply not the case.  There are also unique health risks on cruise ships. Many cruise ships have doctors on board, trained in emergency medicine- but some do not, and they are not required to.

Some of the most common passenger injuries we see as maritime lawyers include misdiagnosed fractures, head injuries and spinal injuries. Oftentimes the doctors and nurses that provide the medical care and treatment onboard these ships are not professionally trained to diagnose these injuries. If you have been injured on a cruise, it is important to get a second opinion immediately from a competent board-certified medical doctor as soon as you arrive on land.

No one wants to get injured or sick while on a cruise vacation, but unfortunately, these types of situations are often inevitable. Slip and fall accidents are common on cruise ships, as are injuries at attractions on the vessel. In addition, given the tight quarters on a cruise ship, it is not uncommon for a communicable illness, such as the norovirus, to spread throughout the ship.

Maritime law does limit a passenger’s ability to recover compensation lost due to an illness or injury. The reason for this is it can be difficult to prove that the ship’s operator should have known about an unsafe condition onboard a vessel. To successfully recover compensation, the passenger needs to prove negligence or intent to bring harm in any claim he or she may bring against the cruise line. 

Any claim for an accident or injury that occurs in open waters can only be filed in federal court and it must be done in a timely manner. Look to the fine print on the back of your ticket to see just how long you have to file a claim for injuries or damages, along with a number of other provisions including where the claim can be brought and whether arbitration is required. 

For the most part, cruise ships are safe and being aware of the laws in the event of criminal activity is not always urgent. However, all passengers should educate themselves in the event the unthinkable does occur while on a cruise. Be aware of the fine print on the back of your ticket, and educate yourself on your cruise ship’s code of conduct.


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 1-888-742-0372, 305-441-0440, or by email. We are ready to help.