Am I Subject to Maritime Laws When I'm Injured on My Cruise?

The statutes that come into play when you’re vacationing at sea

If you are harmed due to negligence that occurs on land—say, a slip-and-fall accident in a grocery store—you normally can sue the property owner under Louisiana personal injury law. But what if you are injured in an accident while on a cruise ship? Can you still sue?

The answer may be in your ticket. A cruise ship ticket is actually a legally binding contract, and it will typically contain a number of terms that spell out your rights when it comes to taking legal action against the ship's owner. Here are some of the more common terms you need to look out for:

  • Venue and choice of law – If you are injured in Louisiana, you can file a personal injury lawsuit in Louisiana. But with a cruise ship, where you can sue may be dictated by your ticket. Cruise ship operators often include what is known as a “forum selection clause” in the fine print. This basically dictates what state's laws and courts you must use to bring a personal injury claim. For example, even if you live in Louisiana, the ticket may say you have to sue in Florida under that state's laws.
  • Time limits – With any type of lawsuit, there is normally a time limit for you to bring a claim. This is known as a “statute of limitations.” With respect to cruise ship injuries, your ticket may actually contain its own statute of limitations, which is often no more than a year after the date of your injury. In addition, the ticket may require you to give advanced notice to the cruise ship operator before filing a lawsuit, which is something that does not apply to most land-based personal injury claims.
  • Disclaimers and limits on liability – A ticket may also contain multiple “disclaimers” that attempt to restrict the cruise ship operator's liability. For instance, your ticket may say the operator assumes no responsibility for any injuries you suffer while an offshore excursion. Or you may be required to admit you fully understand the “risks incident to travel” on board a ship, which can prevent you from recovering damages even if the ship operator is negligent.

“The passengers’ remedy falls under the general maritime law or GML claim, as it's known. And all that means is it’s simply a negligence claim,” says P. Craig Morrow, Jr., a maritime attorney at Morrow, Morrow, Ryan, Bassett & Haik in Opelousas, Louisiana.

“You have to prove four things,” he adds:

  1. the defendant or the cruise ship owner owed the plaintiff a duty
  2. the cruise ship breached the duty
  3. the breach of that duty was a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury
  4. the plaintiff suffered actual damage

“For example, if someone got hurt walking on the front deck of the ship by the pool, and the cruise liner knew about their accident, it's called OSIs or Other Similar Incidents,” Morrow says. “So, if you can prove that the cruise ship owner knew about prior incidents—that this one area was a hazard and was slippery to its guests—then that helps your case tremendously in terms of proving liability. Coupled with that, you have to prove that the cruise ship owner had actual or constructive notice. In other words, you have to prove that they either knew about the hazard or they should have known about the hazard. How could they should have known? Well, the OSI, the prior incidents, or for example, whoever's in charge of cleaning the area, the deck around the pool, if someone spills some liquid or some suntan lotion, and the cruise ship employees know about it, and don't go clean it up, and somebody comes by and slips and cracks their head open, then that's how you prove that they should have known. Because their job is to patrol the area of the pool to look for substances.”

Another thing that makes cruise ship lawsuits unique is you can seek punitive damages. “But you have to show not only that they knew or should've known of it, but they never did anything about it,” Morrow says. “In other words, it has to be a gross misconduct of care, or a willful and wanton misconduct, or arbitrary and capricious, or other terms that are used is egregious fault. It's a much higher standard to recover, but nevertheless it's still available to the passengers on a cruise ship.”

Such lawsuits can be made additionally difficult for the maritime attorneys filing them due to the entities involved. “Most of the cruise lines don’t own their own ships,” Morrow notes. “So the entity I normally sue is the common carrier who is operating the cruise. So you have to know how to navigate that, as well. Because the corporations play shell games and corporate fictions with subsidiaries, so that’s how you can pierce the corporate veil sometimes. It can all come into play, depending on how mischievous they are.”

For more information on this area, see our overview of transportation and maritime law.

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