Compensation for Injuries to Passengers: Maritime Injury Law v. State Personal Injury Law

At sea, just about anything can happen to workers, and when it does, maritime law is there to protect their rights. But when it comes to passengers, guests, visitors, or anyone not employed in the maritime industry or at least not employed by the defendant (collectively “passengers”), then an injury that occurs on a maritime vessel, at port, offshore, or on the high seas may or may not qualify as compensable under maritime law. Sometimes state personal injury law applies. The law is complex, but at Gilman & Bedigian, we hope to help you understand it a bit more so that if you have been injured while a passenger on a water vessel, like a cruise ship, you'll be more informed about what to do.

What are some of the more common dangers passengers face onboard a ship?

Being on a ship or other water vessel has its own inherent dangers. Being at sea compounds those dangers. Common dangers that lead to personal injuries, including illness, include:

  • Unseaworthy vessel
  • Negligence by cruise ship staff
  • Legionnaires' Disease
  • Food poisoning
  • Slip and fall accidents
  • Falling overboard, drowning
  • Swimming pool accidents, drowning
  • Recreational accidents while participating in a ship- or cruise-sponsored activity
  • Toxic chemicals
  • Physical and sexual assault
  • Fires.

If you have been injured and are a passenger on a boat or other maritime vessel, platform, etc., you need to take immediate steps to protect yourself and your legal rights. But your first line of order is to seek medical assistance and then contact an experienced maritime and personal injury lawyer. At Gilman & Bedigian, we devote our resources to personal injury matters, including those that occur on the high seas.

Vessel Owner's or Operator's Duty of Care to Passengers

Vessel owners or operators owe a duty of care to passengers, regardless if they are legally considered invitees or licensees. This duty of care is twofold: (1) they must provide a reasonable about of security against physical harm, including criminal activity like assault; and (2) they must ensure the ship, its equipment and its crew, are seaworthy and in reasonable working condition or adequately trained to perform assigned tasks, respectively. This duty of care, however, may be limited in some instances per a passenger's ticket he or she purchased to be a guest on the ship or other water vessel.

Sources of duty of care are found in statute and maritime general law.

Statutory Liability

According to the Shipping Act 46 U.S.C. § 30102 (specifically §§ 3101-4705, 8101-9308), a vessel owner or operator must comply with inspection standards, manning requirements, and take care of any known defect or problems on the vessel. Absent compliance, the owner or operator can be held accountable.

Additionally, according to 46 U.S.C. § 30103, anyone is entitled to sue the vessel's “master, mate, engineer or pilot” for personal injuries if caused by their negligence, failure to obey navigation laws or willful misconduct.

Recently, however, a new law (2011) specific to cruises was enacted. The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, specifically addresses serious injuries (e.g., wrongful death, sexual crimes) that take place while on the cruise in navigable waters. If a person goes missing or a person is sexually assaulted, it must be reported immediately to ship authorities and the U.S. Coast Guard or other law enforcement agency close-by.

General Maritime Law

The elements of a claim under general maritime law are the same to state personal injury law, i.e.:

  1. There must be a duty of care.
  2. That duty must have been breached.
  3. The breach must have factually and proximately caused the damages.
  4. The damages must carry a dollar value.

When a wrong is committed and you suffer personal injuries for it, you may have a cause of action against another person, but that is dependent on the circumstances. Here, these four elements must be satisfied before a claim has a chance of success. Personal injury can be compensable regardless if the cause of it was through negligence or intent, but if the latter, then punitive damages may also be recovered.

When the duty owed to passengers is breached due to negligence or intent, there may be a cause of action. Like on land, to be able to recover compensation for a breached duty, there must be monetarily quantifiable damages.

Not all injuries, however, are a consequence of a breached duty by the vessel owner or operator. You trip and fall down the stairs, that's on you unless the design of the stairs or some other faulty defect made the stairs dangerous, uneven, and then it's the responsibility of the vessel owner. Sometimes your injury may be the result of a third party. Identifying all liable parties will be important to ensure you receive full and just compensation. Potential liable parties whom you can file a claim against include:

  • The owner of the ship or other water vessel.
  • The company operating or chartering the ship or other water vessel.
  • The company from where you purchased your ticket.
  • A third party, e.g., the ship's contracted physician (medical malpractice).

Jurisdiction & Filing a Maritime Personal Injury Claim or Lawsuit

Maritime injury claims can generally be filed in federal or state court. This choice of venue applies specifically for most injuries that happen to workers in the maritime industry, but not necessarily for passengers. If you are a guest, maybe a surveyor who comes to inspect a ship, and for some reason you are injured, then you can likely still choose the venue, forum or choice of law. But when it comes to passengers on cruise lines, choice is no longer applicable. It's all about the ticket you purchased.

Lawsuits Limited by Terms of the Cruise Ticket

As a passenger on a cruise, you likely purchased a ticket. That ticket is essentially a contract, and in that contact, there's a lot to be bound in the fine print: (1) venue or choice of law; (2) limits on when a cruise line can be sued; and (3) statute of limitations.

Forum Selection Clause

If you are injured while on a cruise and the fault lies with the cruise line owner or operator, where you sue may have already been determined by the cruise line via the ticket you purchased. In the fine print, where nobody reads, lies the venue and -- in some instances -- the choice of law where you can file a claim or lawsuit. This also means, because there is one forum, it may include a court in a state that may or may not be your home state. Many passengers and vacationers travel to Baltimore, Maryland, to take a cruise, but they are domiciled in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, or elsewhere.

This provision in the terms of the ticket is an inhibitor. It's hoped you'll be intimidated to not pursue a lawsuit, but if you are injured by the fault of another entity, then you must pursue it. It is the only means to recover full, fair and just compensation. At Gilman & Bedigian, we do our best to accommodate our clients, including those clients not in our own backyard.

The Nature & Limits of the Lawsuit

When you are injured at a grocery store and it is the owner's fault, recovering fair and just compensation is not limited by an understanding that something could happen if you enter the grocery store. You are able to move ahead to file a claim or sue for full compensation if the accident was caused through no fault of your own. If you are on a cruise, however, and are injured, even though it was the fault of another person and no fault of our own undertaking, you may still be limited with respect to our lawsuit.

The ticket may specify terms by which a passenger can sue the cruise line and the law that will be applied in those cases. If you fail to follow the rules on the ticket, a court may refuse to hear your case. This restriction thereby effectively hinders chances to maximize recovery of fair and just compensation.

Statute of Limitations

For most maritime personal injury cases, the statute of limitations is comparatively charitable. Injured parties, workers specifically, usually have three years to file a claim or lawsuit. This extended period does not apply in passenger cases. In fact, compared to any and all other personal injury cases throughout the U.S., passengers are afforded the least amount of time to file a claim or lawsuit. Most tickets will indicate that passengers have one year to file a claim or lawsuit. In addition to the 1-year statute of limitations, tickets will also indicate that passengers must also provide a notice anywhere between one to six months to the cruise line that he or she intends to file a claim or lawsuit. If you don't meet the deadlines per the terms of the ticket, then you risk the court kicking your claim to the curb.

What can passengers recover in a personal injury lawsuit?

Under general maritime law and most state law, passengers can recover economic and noneconomic damages, and in some cases, they may be entitled to negligence infliction of emotional distress and/or punitive damages.

Economic Damages

Economic damages are generally those damages that already have a value attached to them or that the calculation of such value is generally easy to determine. Examples of economic damages include:

  • Medical expenses. These expenses include the costs for medical examinations, appointments, therapy, treatment, transportation to and from appointments.
  • Lost wages. These damages include missed work due to hospitalization, rehabilitation, other.
  • Loss of earned income. Sometimes the damage is such that you will never be able to enjoy employment in the same area you enjoyed prior to the accident or incident.
  • Funeral expenses. In some cases where a loved one died, you may be able to be reimbursed for funeral costs.

Noneconomic Damages

Noneconomic damages are damages that have no price tag attached to it. In fact, it's likely no price tag will ever truly determine or indicate the actual worth of the damage. These damages include physical and emotional pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment, loss of consortium, among other like damages. Defendants try to minimize these damages. An experienced personal injury lawyer will be able to identify these attempts and counter them. At Gilman & Bedigian, that's exactly what we do.

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

In some cases, passengers can file a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. This claim is one where the “victim” was not actually physically injured, but was more akin to a bystander who almost was physically injured by an accident or incident. For compensation for this type of “emotional” damage, you must prove two things:

  1. You were in the zone of danger where an accident occurred, thus, you just missed being injury yourself but in lieu of the injury witnessed something tragic.
  2. The emotional distress caused from the experience manifested in a physical condition. An example includes post traumatic stress disorder.

Punitive Damages

If your injury was due to extreme negligence or egregious wilful misconduct, then you may have a case for punitive damages. This type of damage has a threefold purpose: (1) provide relief to you as a victim of a particularly egregious accident or incident; (2) punish the tortfeasor or wrongdoer; and (3) act as a deterrent for future repeat behavior.

Maritime Personal Injury Attorneys for Passengers in Maryland

Passengers on cruise lines or other water vessels are subject to enclosed, dangerous conditions that they are not subject to while on land. The owner or operator of the vessel is responsible for their health and safety. But when accidents happens, and they are responsible, they turn to their big corporate attorneys to get them out of paying for their negligence. You need attorneys like ours at Gilman & Bedigian, who have the required experience and the necessary resources to pursue and develop your claim successfully.

The attorneys at Gilman & Bedigian are experienced in both personal injury law and maritime law. If you are a passenger and was injured while on a vessel on navigable waters, you may have a claim and we can help you recover the compensation you deserve. Contact our firm for a free evaluation today.

Let Us Help

If someone you are close to has been seriously injured or worse, you are naturally devastated not only by what has happened, but by the effect that the injury or loss has had on you and your family. At a time when you're vulnerable, traumatized and emotionally exhausted, you need a team that will support you through the often complex process that lies ahead.

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