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Harmony of the Seas docked in Marseille, France.

Frédéric Speich for La Provence

French reporters of La Provence have confirmed that an incident occurred aboard the Harmony of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship owned by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.  The ship was docked in French port Marseille when a lifeboat affixed on the 5th deck suddenly detached and fell into the sea, with 5 crew members inside.  The newspaper has confirmed one fatality (a 42-year-old Filipino), two critically injured, and two moderately injured.  It is still unknown at this time why the lifeboat became detached or why the crew members were in the lifeboat.  However some have reported that this incident may have occurred during a security drill taking place while the ship was docked.

Injuries to crew members is unfortunately a common occurrence.  In the last decade, the US Department of Transportation disclosed that over 1,300 crew members died in various incidents.  That is why it is paramount that crew members and their family know their legal rights when an incident occurs.  For each crew member injury claim, there are 3 areas of importance:

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51hYy2KWKwL._SX384_BO1,204,203,200_In the mid-nineteenth century, Congress passed the “Limitation Act” to induce capitalists to invest money in the maritime and shipping industries.  The Act achieves this purpose by exempting allegedly innocent vessel owners from any liability beyond the value of their vessel, i.e. “the limitation fund.”  In other words, where a vessel owner is not personally negligent, the full extent of his liability is the limitation fund.  The Act applies to all kinds of vessels, including commercial boats, pleasure yachts, and even jet skis.  Most commonly, the Limitation Act is invoked where a maritime accident is caused solely by the negligence of the vessel owner’s employee or agent.  When faced with liability, a vessel owner may file a petition for protection under the Limitation Act, which must be filed in federal court.

After the vessel owner deposits with the court an amount representing the full value of the vessel, the court issues a stay for all related claims against the vessel owner pending in any other forum, and directs all potential claimants to file their claims against the vessel owner in the federal court within a specified period of time.  See Fed. R. Civ. P. Supp. Rules F(3), F(4).  In a typical proceeding under the Limitation Act, if the vessel owner is found liable, but limitation is granted, the court distributes the limitation fund among the claimants in an equitable proceeding known as a “concursus.”

Without question, the Limitation Act is an antiquated doctrine that serves to deny justice to victims of horrific maritime accidents.  For instance, the owner of a large, successful maritime corporation (i.e. tow boat company, marine salvage company, jet ski rental company) may be entitled to significantly reduce the value of injury claims caused by their employees.  Additionally, injury victims are forced to bring their claims in admiralty jurisdiction upon the filing of a limitation petition, which deprives them of a jury trial.  As discussed below, there are exceptions to these harsh procedural hurdles that must be utilized in maritime injury cases.

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In a special letter to the editor published on September 4, 2015, in the Miami Herald, Ira H. Leesfield revisits the importance of the decision reached by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, not only for the case of Teresita Sorrels, but for present and future injured cruise passengers.

“In reversing the trial court’s order, the Eleventh Circuit gave Teresita Sorrels her day in court and allows passengers injured by the alleged negligence of the cruise line the same rights as if they were otherwise the victims of land-based negligent businesses.” writes the senior managing partner of Leesfield Scolaro.

Click here to read the article written by Ira H. Leesfield for the Miami Herald.

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Sorrels.jpgWhile on a cruise ship owned and operated by Norwegian Cruise Line, Teresita Sorrels, was walking on the exterior pool deck after it had rained when she suddenly slipped and fell, suffering an unstable comminuted fracture of her wrist which required open reduction internal fixation surgery. The incident was captured by the ship’s closed-circuit surveillance system and preserved for purposes of litigation.

Sorrels and her husband hired Leesfield Scolaro, and sued Norwegian Cruise Line alleging that the dangerous surface of the pool deck lacked the appropriate coefficient of friction (the degree of slip-resistance). They also alleged that NCL failed to warn the passengers of such dangerous condition.

The trial court in Sorrels v. NCL (Bahamas) Ltd., ruled in 2014 that the testimony and opinions of the expert hired by Leesfield Scolaro ought to be excluded for several reasons. Yesterday however, on August 4, 2015, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the summary judgment finding that the trial court erred in excluding the expert testimony submitted by Sorrels.

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Last week, Theresa Meuers was untimely killed in a horrendous motor vehicle accident that occurred on George Price Highway in Belize. You may read Theresa’s obituary published in the Star Tribune.

Accident0009.jpgThat day, in the late morning hours, Theresa and Sam Schulte, her companion, were in the back seat of an SUV driven by Tour Guide, Leon Rodriguez (some have reported that the driver’s name is Leon Garcia of Big John’s Tours.) Before noon, Rodriguez overtook an 18-wheeler that was transporting oranges, and several seconds later returned in the same right lane. At this point, there are different witness accounts, mainly from Rodriguez, and the driver of the truck, Miguel Angel Arriaga. Rodriguez told the authorities that he slowed down to make a right turn, while Arriaga said that Rodriguez came to a complete stop in the middle of the road, with no turn signal indicating he was going to make a right. Arriaga told Police that he was unable to stop the truck in time and he rammed the 18-wheeler into the rear of the SUV at great speed.

Theresa and Sam were both stuck in the completely destroyed SUV for almost one full hour before an ambulance arrived at the scene of the accident. They were both taken to the hospital, but Theresa did not survive her injuries and was pronounced dead at the hospital later that day.

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For the longest times, cruise ship passengers were not allowed to bring cruise lines as defendants in medical malpractice claims to recover for the negligent acts of a doctor or a nurse when they were committed aboard a cruise ship. In almost every single scenario, passengers were left without anyone to sue. Injustice remained served for years, until today.

In its latest ruling, judges of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the previous law, Barbetta, was outdated, and allowed the family of a deceased cruise passenger to continue on with a lawsuit for medical malpractice against the cruise line, in this case, Royal Caribbean.

The Barbetta ruling was justified in the nature of the relationship between the passenger and the physician, and the carrier’s lack of control over that relationship. The Fifth Circuit Court ruled that “the work which a physician or a surgeon does . . . is under the control of the passengers themselves. It is their business, not the business of the carrier. . . . The master or owners of the ship cannot interfere in the treatment of the medical officer when he attends a passenger. He is not their servant engaged in their business, and subject to their control as to his mode of treatment.” [Secondly] “[a] ship’s physician is an independent medical expert engaged on the basis of his professional qualifications and carried on board a ship for the convenience of passengers, who are free to contract with him for any medical services they may require.”

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During a Valentine’s Day Cruise on the Holland America Line cruise ship “MS Nieuw Amsterdam”, cruise employee, Ketut Pujayasa, 28, who is an Indonesian citizen, savagely raped, beat and attempted to kill an innocent 31-year-old female cruise passenger.

As is often the method used by cruise employees who sexually assault female passengers, Pujayasa gained access to the passenger’s stateroom using a master key issued to many crewmembers, which give access to every single stateroom throughout the ship. Once inside, he hid on the balcony of the room. Moments later, the passenger returned to her room, where she was jumped on by the crewmember. According to the latest reports, he beat her with a laptop, and a curling iron. Once he thought he had physically won his victim over, he used the curling iron’s cord and the phone’s cord to choke the woman. Fighting for her life, she was able to loosen the grasp of her assailant by kicking his exposed genitals.

Ketut Pujayasa mugshot.jpgAt that time, Pujayasa told the FBI that he attempted to kill his agonizing victim by throwing her over the railing of the stateroom’s balcony. That is when knocks on the room’s door scared him away and he escaped by climbing out of the room, into another balcony. The victim ran out of her room half naked, with the cord of the curling iron still wrapped around her neck and body.

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Yesterday, a four year-old and a six year old child were discovered unresponsive in a pool aboard the Norwegian Breakaway said Petty Officer Adam Sansoucie of the U.S. Coast Guard in North Carolina.

To date, very few details were released by the Coast Guard, and none by Norwegian Cruise Lines, other than the following words on the cruise lines’ Facebook Fanpage:

“We extend our deepest sympathies to the family during this extremely difficult time and are providing full assistance and support. The family is in our thoughts and prayers and we ask that you please keep them in your thoughts and prayers as well.”

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Since 2010 and the passage of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, the cruise industry has a duty to report 8 crimes to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They include: Homicide, suspicious death, missing U.S. National, kidnapping, assault with serious bodily injury, firing or tampering with the vessel, theft of money or property in excess of $10,000, and sexual crimes. Once the crimes are reported, the Coast Guard publishes the statistics on its website after the investigations are closed.

carnival-triumph-disabled.jpgOn December 20, 2013, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published its review of the first 3 years of compliance by the cruise ship industry of the new regulations imposed by the CVSSA. Senator Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation gave a sombering overview: “I’ll give the cruise ships some credit, because of the first bill we passed they raised the level of their railings . . . They’ve done a pretty good job on that, but when it comes to crime, no they have not.”

In its report, with respect to CVSSA crime-reporting requirements, the GAO noted that the FBI and the USCG have implemented these provisions as required. The crimes that occur on cruise ships and that fall within one of the 8 crimes listed above have been published when they are no longer under investigation. However, the GAO noted instrinseque limitations on how the statistics would provide any measure of usefuleness to prospective cruise passengers. Specifically, the GAO raised three specific areas of concern:

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Last February, the Carnival Triumph set sail from Texas. Days later, in the middle of a 7-day Mexico cruise, a fire broke out in the engine room and caused the ship to be towed back to the United States. According to CNN AC360, which aired the video below last night, Carnival knew that only 4 out of 6 generators were operational at the time the cruise started, and knew of a generator fire hazard across its fleet of ships.

The result was a complete fiasco. To read our previous entry on the situation at the time, click here: Fire on Carnival Cruise Ship for the second time – Cruise Passengers stranded in the middle of the ocean