Sarah Kirby went on a five night Caribbean cruise on the Carnival Destiny to celebrate her 30th birthday in October of 2012. Partying with friends, she became very intoxicated. Just after midnight, she went back to her stateroom and stepped out on to her cabin balcony to get some air. Somehow, she managed to fall or climb over the 45″ high railing, tumbling seven decks, roughly 100′, to the water, striking a life raft on the way down. Kirby is quoted as saying, ‘I remember leaning over the balcony to look at the side of the ship and next thing I knew I was in the water.‘ Two hours later she was rescued from the water by the ship’s crew.
She is now suing Carnival for negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She claims that the bartender “pushed drinks on her,” and that Carnival delayed rescuing her from the water. Carnival denies the allegations saying that the claims ‘are completely unsupported and contradicted by the evidence in the case.‘ The lawsuit made a large splash in the media in January when infrared CCTV video emerged of the fall. (See the video after the page break.)
Without expressing an opinion about the specifics of the lawsuit, it does raise several important questions. Are balconies, booze and drunken passengers inherently tragedies waiting to happen? Are the cruise lines doing enough to keep their passengers on board and doing enough when they fall overboard? Specifically, why haven’t cruise lines installed “Man Overboard Detection Systems” as mandated by the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010?
The most modern cruise ships maximize the number of staterooms with balconies. Carolyn Spencer Brown writing in the Daily Traveler, comments: In little more than a decade, private balconies on cruise ships have gone from luxurious amenities to absolute necessities. When it comes to today’s newer, more massive ships, the big trend is in quantity. Never has securing a small plot (most standard sized verandas have about 40 to 50 square feet) of “private” space been easier and more affordable. Balconies, especially on today’s newest mega-ships, like Celebrity Reflection, Norwegian Epic, and MSC Divina, are so plentiful that these staterooms can actually be cheaper to bag than those without.
Unfortunately, the advent of balconies on ships has also seen an increase in the number of passengers falling overboard from balconies. Usually, this is not easy to do. As noted by Cruise Critic: It is incredibly difficult for a person to fall off of a cruise ship. Railings and guardrails are designed to prevent people who slip, trip or otherwise lose their footing from going overboard. However, passengers who climb on chairs or sit on balcony railings can fall. Sadly, passengers do purposely jump from cruise ships as well.
CruiseJunkie.com has tracked 229 passengers and crew who have gone overboard on cruise ships and ferries since 2000. By their figures, Carnival has the highest frequency of people going over the side at 50 or roughly 21% of the total body count. CruisePage.com, which also tracks crew and passengers going overboard has a list of fewer than 100 cases, yet also notes that “Carnival passengers (33 incidents) are more likely to go overboard than passengers from other cruise lines.” Looking further into the demographics, they comment that “most people who fall overboard are either drunk or doing silly things (climbing on the railing or between cabin balconies). ”
Are cruise lines doing enough to keep their passengers and crew on board? Congress passed the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 which includes a wide range of security and safety provisions. One provision calls for a man overboard system “to the extent that such technology is available” that “can be used for capturing images of passengers or detecting passengers who have fallen overboard.” Critics have called for the implementation of laser based systems capable of setting off an alarm when a passenger or crew member falls overboard.
So why haven’t the cruise lines implemented this technology? Critics have claimed that the cruise lines are “ignoring the law.” That claim is unfair. The cruise lines have generally complied with all the regulations resulting from the Act. The Carnival balcony railing which Ms. Kirby tumbled over, exceeded the requirements of the Act, for example.
The problem is that the technology necessary for a practical automated man-overboard sensor is complex and the US Coast Guard has not yet promulgated the regulations for such a system. Apparently, Carnival’s Cunard Line Queen Victoria is now testing a man overboard system, which is being “evaluated for reliability.” There are, however, no Coast Guard regulations describing what sort of system is required or even that such a system be installed.
What is Coast Guard doing about writing the regulations? They say that they are working on it, but they cannot say when they will be finished. As reported last week by Law 360:
During a Tuesday hearing on cruise ship regulatory oversight, a U.S. Coast Guard official told the National Transportation Safety Board that there is still no set timeline for when the agency will be ready to put forward passenger safety rulemaking mandated by Congress in 2010.
Capt. Eric P. Christensen, chief traveling inspector for the Coast Guard, acknowledged that the agency still has no scheduled date for when it will come out with proposed rules for how cruise ships may comply with man-overboard detection systems mandated by the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act.
It is difficult for the cruise lines to comply with regulations that have not yet been written.
One way that cruise lines may be able increase overall safety would be to sell less alcohol aboard their ships. That would decrease cruise line revenues and, in all likelihood, passenger satisfaction. This is the one worthwhile change that seems the least likely to be made.