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Why Crimes on Cruises Are Such a Maddening — And Persistent — Problem

‘The minute you sail away, so do all the laws that protect you‘

“If you want to murder somebody,” says Jamie Barnett, “take them on a cruise.”

Barnett knows this all too well. On October 15, 2005, her 24-year-old daughter Ashley died unexpectedly aboard a Carnival cruise. Barnett and her family believe that Ashley somehow died of a methadone overdose, smuggled aboard in a DayQuil bottle by her troubled boyfriend. It’s unclear how, or how much, methadone got into her system: Ashley was never a drug user, which was proven out by hair-follicle tests conducted after her death by a private pathologist. 

When Ashley was discovered unconscious, it took staff more than 30 minutes to make any attempt at resuscitation. There were few defibrillators on the massive ship, and no opioid-overdose inhibitors at all. 

Because Ashley died aboard a cruise ship, her family will never know the exact circumstances of her death. Her body was left at the closest port of call — Ensenada, Mexico — where she was embalmed in order to be brought back to L.A. And once a body is embalmed, a toxicology test is essentially useless. Though an “open” FBI case remains, Ashley’s family never learned anything from authorities, both in the U.S. and Mexico, regarding the nature of her death. 

In the ensuing years, Barnett has found that her family’s tragedy isn’t uncommon. And so, in 2006, she joined International Cruise Victims Association, or ICV, a group founded by four families who had experienced tragedies similar to hers. 

Dozens of victims of sexual assault, along with families of those who died or disappeared on cruise ships, have shared their stories with ICV. These narratives allege extreme carelessness: ships waiting hours before reporting to the Coast Guard after someone has gone overboard; cruise medical personnel leaving gravely ill people to die rather than have them helicoptered to proper medical care; and the sexual abuse of teens

Rules and Regulations

“The protection you have as a cruise passenger is limited at best,” Ross A. Klein, a Memorial University of Newfoundland professor, told the New York Times in April. “The [farther] you get from your home country, the more limited it is.”

Cruise lines are often protected by their international status. Despite docking in the U.S. and having headquarters here, the vast majority of cruise lines are registered in the Bahamas, Liberia or Panama. This means that ships avoid U.S. taxes and regulations, including those regarding wages and worker safety. (The majority of cruise-line employees make less than $2,000 a month and are required to work far more than 40 hours a week.) As such, rather than complying with U.S. laws, the law aboard the ship defers to the law of whichever country the ship is registered to. And even then, it can be difficult for that nation’s police to investigate crimes in open waters, as the Times reported.

“The minute you sail away, so do all the laws that protect you,” says Barnett. “Once you’re out in international waters, if something happens to you as an American, there are no independent police available to you on a cruise ship out in the middle of an ocean. The only type of police would be the ship security personnel.” 

In response, Roger Frizzell, Carnival Corporation’s chief communications officer, tells me, “Any claim that Americans are not protected by U.S. laws when on cruise ships ignores the fact that Americans actually have more protection at sea than travelers using any other form of transportation, or who travel abroad. Long-standing federal criminal statutes give U.S. law enforcement authorities special maritime jurisdiction over crimes on ships involving Americans that occur both in U.S. waters and on the high seas worldwide, and even over crimes in foreign waters if the cruise embarks or disembarks in the U.S.”

He adds, “We aren’t only responsible for following strict laws and requirements from the various flag states [the country the ship was registered in], as well as international maritime laws and regulations, but we also must adhere to all laws and regulations in any jurisdiction, port or destination where we travel to around the world, including, of course, the U.S.”  

International maritime law dictates how crimes are compensated as well. In 1920, the Death on the High Seas Act was enacted, entitling families of ship employees killed in international waters to the wages that workers would have earned over their lifetime. Today, the law is applied to passengers as well as employees on cruise ships, although if a child drowns on a ship, their family wouldn’t be entitled to anything because the child wasn’t employed. 

In instances in which the cruise line was clearly at fault for a death, there is the possibility for a lawsuit. According to Barnett, these often involve a nondisclosure agreement and are therefore not known to the public. 

The Most Common Crimes

While there have been successful settlements between cruises and injured employees and passengers, there are few reports of victims or families successfully reaching settlements from death or sexual assault. And of the 120 crimes reported to the Department of Transportation by cruise lines in 2018, 84 were sexual assaults.

To confront this reality, cruise safety advocates, including ICV, have taken to Congress in order to force cruises to implement certain features, like installing peepholes in doors and making rape kits available onboard. Beyond these small improvements, there are few safeguards in place that are under U.S. jurisdiction. In 2010, Congress passed the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, or CVSSA, requiring boats to implement “man-overboard”-detection technology that would capture images if someone were to fall off the ship. Currently, around two people per month go overboard; according to maritime lawyer Jim Walker, about 50 percent of these incidents involve foul play, typically involving a man throwing a woman over the railings. Still, cruise lines have been resistant to abide by CVSSA.  

Frizzell asserts that the Carnival Corporation has “undertaken a wide number of tests of the latest man-overboard technology on several of our ships and multiple lines. While we have made solid progress, the ongoing reliability of these systems and the number of false positives on large cruise ships at sea continues to be a concern.”

In a separate push for safety, the ICV is fighting to have defibrillators widely available on ships, and for regulations to state that when someone dies under suspicious circumstances aboard a cruise, their body can remain on the ship until it returns to the U.S. “It’s really hard to get action in Congress because of the powerful lobbying that the industry has,” says Barnett. 

“None of us are ever telling anybody, ‘Don’t take a cruise,’” she continues. “What we’re trying to do is get the cruise industry to make it safer for you to take a cruise. I want it to get safe enough that I want to take a cruise in my lifetime.”