What Laws Apply When Sailing on a Cruise Ship?

New York attorneys explain how the rules are different on the high seas

By Jessica Glynn | Last updated on March 9, 2023

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As many travelers re-boarded cruise ships last year, the mom of Heather Ragone, a transportation & maritime lawyer at Gallo Vitucci Klar in New York City, was among them.

She arrived at port in mid-October, for a cruise out of New York, with her negative COVID-19 test and fully completed vaccine card in hand. But the CDC had ended its program monitoring case numbers on cruise ships. Likewise, restrictions around masks or quarantining the sick in their cabins were by then a thing of the past.

“She tested positive as soon as she stepped off the boat,” Ragone says. “Her illness wasn’t too bad… In fact, she went on a second cruise and it happened again. We’ve told her to stop cruising.”

It’s a good thing her illness wasn’t severe, because had she suffered medical expenses or pain and suffering—or lost wages if she hadn’t yet retired—her ability to recover damages could have been limited by the fine print on the back of her ticket.

“Every ship line has their own set of rules,” Ragone says. “When you purchase a ticket, you’re agreeing to those terms.”

In addition to stating that you accept any illness-related risks, those terms often specify the location where any lawsuit against the cruise line must be filed and a time frame for notice that may be much shorter than the typical three-year statute of limitations.

“The devil’s in the details,” says transportation and maritime lawyer Melissa Patzelt-Russo with Chalos & Co. in Oyster Bay. “Passenger tickets usually have forum selection clauses, and every one is different.” This means the cruise lines’ in-house lawyers have already decided the jurisdiction for any lawsuits that passengers file against them.

And once a ship leaves port, a whole new set of laws comes into play.

What is Maritime Law?

“Maritime [law] applies when you’re in the water,” says Ragone, who represents trucking and bus companies, one of which does tours that go in the water. She focuses on law that applies to dry land.

“I think a lot of people don’t even know what maritime law is,” says Patzelt-Russo, who works with commercial vessels transporting cargo.

Maritime or admiralty law refers to the regulations on shipping and commerce in domestic and international waters. When a crime occurs on water, the jurisdiction depends on how far it is from land. In international waters, more than 24 miles off the coast, the crime would fall under the laws of the country where the ship is registered. If a ship is at port when a crime occurs, it falls within that country’s jurisdiction.

Every ship line has their own set of rules. When you purchase a ticket, you’re agreeing to those terms.

Here’s a roundup of some U.S. and international regulations your cruise line must navigate:

Death on the High Seas Act

When a fatal accident as a result of negligence or misconduct occurs more than 3 nautical miles from the U.S. shore, families cannot file a wrongful death suit in state court, but they can file a federal claim. The remedies, however, are less than under state law and limited to damages like lost wages and burial costs.

International Convention for the Safety of Life at Seas

SOLAS is an international treaty, first adopted in 1914 after the Titanic disaster, that regulates safety standards related to ship construction, navigation, firefighting and lifesaving equipment.

The Jones Act

This federal law seeks to protect the domestic shipbuilding industry by permitting only U.S.-built, owned and documented vessels to transport merchandise between U.S. ports.

The Passenger Vessel Services Act

This trade law allows only U.S. ships to pick up passengers at one U.S. port and let them disembark at another. With most cruise ships flying foreign flags, that means you can’t just head to another U.S. port to try to catch your ship if you missed its departure.

The Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act

The law requires cruise liners to reports incidents of serious criminal activity to the FBI and to take safety measures such as providing ship rails 42 inches or higher and installing technology to detect when someone falls overboard.

Getting Legal Help

Reports of gastrointestinal disease outbreaks on cruise ships are made public through the CDC. As of July 2022, however, COVID cases are no longer required to be reported.

Ragone wonders how many people like her mom test positive after leaving a ship. “She had no reason to tell them she got sick on the boat, and they don’t know what their numbers are. It’s a free-for-all and business as usual.”

If you have a situation involving a cruise line and need legal advice, consider reaching out to an experienced New York attorney who practices maritime & transportation law or personal injury law. To learn more about this area of law, see our overview on maritime & transportation law.

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