Cruise passengers call for stricter government oversight of industry

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) in 2011. He has pushed for nearly a year to pass the Cruise Passenger Protection Act.
(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Angry former cruise ship passengers, including one who said she was raped by a ship employee and a woman who blamed inadequate shipboard medical care for her mother’s death, are calling on lawmakers to impose tighter restrictions on the industry to protect travelers from what they called undisclosed criminal activity.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) has pushed for nearly a year to pass the Cruise Passenger Protection Act, which would increase the Department of Transportation’s role in ensuring passenger safety and require cruise ship companies to publicly disclose crimes that occur on their ships. The bill also would simplify language in ticket contracts, which passengers say are hard to read and understand.

“In spite of the evidence that crimes, fires, mechanical failures, drownings and mishandled medical emergencies occur with disturbing regularity on cruise ships, the industry continues to deny it has a problem,” said Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, during a Wednesday hearing on the legislation.

Laurie Dishman told the committee that she was raped by a ship employee while on a trip to Mexico. She said outside experts had concluded that sexual assaults occurred frequently on ships, despite claims by cruise lines that such crimes were rare.

Representatives for cruise lines did not participate in the hearing. But in a statement, the Cruise Lines International Assn. said crime was rare on cruise ships.


“Today’s hearing presented a distorted picture of an industry that has an exceptional guest care and safety record,” the group said. “It also did not provide a balanced view that would help policymakers and the public better understand the full implications of the Cruise Passenger Protection Act — and why it is not needed.”

Witnesses at the hearing also raised concern about the cruise lines’ ticket contracts, in which passengers have “virtually no individual rights,” said Philip Gerson, a lawyer and chairman of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

“The type is too small for many people to read,” he said in his written testimony. “The non-negotiable ‘take it or leave it’ ticket language empowers cruise lines to do practically anything they want to do or not on the ship.”

Amanda Butler, a cruise passenger who says she lost her mother after the ship’s medical team did not respond fast enough to her collapse, said the company’s contract terms exempted it from legal responsibility for the actions of its nurses and physicians, who were considered independent contractors.

“My mother died needlessly because humane emergency protocol was not enforced,” she said.

Rockefeller said he hoped to include his proposal in the Coast Guard reauthorization bill, which is supported by the cruise ship industry.

“Everybody knows that the Coast Guard bill is a bill that you’ve got to pass,” he said. “If you separate them, the Coast Guard bill will pass; the cruise ship bill will get flushed down the toilet.”

Republicans on the committee opposed adding it to the Coast Guard act.