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Wayne Parsons
Wayne Parsons
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Congress and Cruise Ships, Peepholes and Latches!

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There you go again! Those are the memorable words of Ronald Reagan in a Presidential campaign debate. Those words came to mind as I listened to Congress brag about making cruise ships safer by passing a law mandating peepholes and latches. Here is what Senator Kerry said about his get tough legislation in 2008:

“Over the past year our organization and other victims of cruise crimes have met numerous times with cruise lines executives in an effort to have them voluntarily take the necessary steps as outlined in our proposals,” said Carver, President of International Cruise Victims. “The cruise line industry has failed to step up to the challenge and make any significant changes to improve safety. That resistance to change is a clear signal to us that the only alternative left is for the United States Congress to move forward with legislation. I’m grateful to Senator Kerry and Rep. Matsui for their support in this endeavor.”

“It is absolutely appalling that the cruise industry does not have basic reporting and prevention mechanisms in place to keep their patrons safe,” said Rep. Matsui. “When a goliath like the cruise industry will not act in the best interest of the customers who are entrusting it with their personal well-being, then Congress has a responsibility to step in and shed some sunlight on the problem.”

“It’s important we continue the efforts to improve cruise ship safety which began in the last Congress, when I chaired the National Security Subcommittee,” said Rep. Shays. “The bottom line is, the crime statistics provided by the cruise industry are inaccurate and inadequate. This must change.”

Well that sounds pretty good so why do I complain? Well after the lobbyists from the "goliath cruise industry" (Senator Kerry’s words) got their hands on the law, it fixed a problem that didn’t exist. That’s right. 90% white wash, 10% substance. In hawaii we call that shibai!

Over 90% of the cruise ship industry had already put in peepholes and latches in their ships. And crime reporting is a good thing but the real meat of the prpoblems were left out of the final bill. What Congress didn’t tell you is that they rejected many legislative provisions that would actually protect cruise ship passengers. In particular the cruise industry lobbyists got the gullible legislators to delete a provision that would allow the family of persons killed at sea to recover damages for their losses under the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA):

The industry requested one major concession: deletion of an amendment to the Death on the High Seas Act that would have allowed surviving relatives to recover damages for emotional suffering and bereavement, as well as any pain and suffering the victim may have experienced before death.

Under the existing law, survivors of people who die at sea can recover only lost wages or burial expenses.

If a retired person died, for example, family members would get little if any money, Miami maritime attorney James Walker said.

Who are we talking about? Twenty three (23) brothers and sisters of dead victims of the U.S. Cole bombing tragedy were given zero damages in a federal court case for there wrongful deaths. The federal judge called it a legal tragedy but he no choice because of the law. So you can cheer for Congress if you want to for mandating peepholes and latches that the ships already had but I fell more like voting these folks out of office. The deal was done behind closed doors and you can bet that no cruise ship passengers were in there with the lobbyists and the legislators smoking cigars and drinking scotch.

The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2009 in revised form– just not the original. Here are some of the key points that appear in the revised version of the bill:

- The bit that could have the most impact on the most passengers has to do with the height of railings on balconies and open decks. The bill states that ship railings must conform to a minimum height requirement: 4.5 feet high in the original version, but 3.5 feet high in the revision. For perspective, Carnival Cruise Lines’ railings are 44 inches high, in compliance with international and federal regulations — actually two inches taller than the minimum height stated in the amended bill. The bill as it was originally written would require about another 10 inches to be added to those railings.

- As for other on-board changes, the bill states that cruise ships must add peepholes (some lines, like Carnival and Royal Caribbean, already have them), safety latches and time-sensitive key technology to cabin doors. Also, medical staff must be trained to conduct sexual-assault examinations.

- The bill also clarifies the procedures for reporting cruise ship crimes, including contacting the FBI as soon as possible and submitting a written report to the Coast Guard. Ships must also keep logs of on-board crimes and make them available to the FBI, Coast Guard or other law-enforcement officials. The information will also be published on the Coast Guard Web site.

- One important change from the original to the revised version is the removal of an amendment to the Death on the High Seas Act that would allow the families of passengers who died while cruising to sue the cruise lines for pain and suffering.

I am attending the American Association of Justice (AAJ) annual convention in San Francisco this week and learned a lot from the great admiralty attorneys like Paul Edel and John Hickey. I asked Mr. Hickey about this subject and he allowed me to quote him in this article. Here is what he has to say on the subject:

“The Death on the High Seas Act has to be changed now for the safety and security of our families. This outdated, inadequate Federal law allows little or no damages to the families of people who die as a result of the negligence of a cruise line where the accident or negligence occurs on the high seas. The cruise lines get off Scott free when their negligence causes the death of an older or younger passenger. How does it figure that the family of someone who dies where the person who dies was not yet making money because they are young or not making money anymore because they are retired gets nothing? State wrongful death laws provide this. Why not the law of the sea? Congress should step up to the plate and change this now.”

I wonder if any member of Congress is listening? I know that they listen to the cruise industry lobbyists. Maybe they think that you aren’t paying attention and won’t notice that the laws they pass are like party favors given to the rich and powerful who fund their campaigns. I think that they may be mistaken. The voice of the people is coming alive in Blogs and web sites and Facebook conversations. That new voice is talking about things that matter like health and safety. The old barriers that kept the smoke and the truth inside the smoke filled rooms in Washington, are coming down.

The public through social media is throwing the windows open and demanding answers. They were important in the last election, those names on Facebook and Twitter and this Blog. While identity theft is a major front page story in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, I suggest that the most important identity that politicians and insiders should pay attention to is the groundswell of conversations that is happening with the explosion of social technology like The Daily Kos and Politico and The Huffington Post. Those conversations and rising like a thunderstorm and they are people, with names and real identities who will vote and demand health, safety and justice. And they will get it.

Peepholes and latches. I can see the Congressmen and women looking out through those peepholes. I hope they unlatch the door, shoo the lobbyists out into the open and pass a law that protects people from injury and death on cruise ships.

I’ll fall out of my chair if we hear anything back from Senator Kerry or others in Congress about the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2009 (HR.1485 House Number – S.588 Senate Number) or DOHSA.

What do think?