By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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The profitability of the legal process is on prominent display in the offices of the handful of Miami lawyers who make their living by suing the cruise lines. Framed newspaper articles describing glorious settlements and jury awards vie for space on waiting-room walls. Each year attorney William Huggett tallies the dividends of his cases and tacks up the scorecard amid photographs of him celebrating with triumphant clients. Working on a contingency basis (which typically amounts to 40 percent of each settlement or award) Huggett hauled in $3,162,120 for himself and his clients in 1989; in 1990 the sum was $2,604,649; this year he's already made more than $5,408,000. Charles Lipcon boasts of more than twenty cases in the past twenty years that topped the million-dollar mark. Brett Rivkind brags that most of the incidents he handles are "six-figure cases." "Yeah," Rivkind chuckles. "It's a good practice."
For years cruise lines have attempted to distance themselves from U.S. labor and legal arenas. Every cruise ship that calls in Miami is foreign owned, foreign registered, and almost entirely staffed with foreign employees. Because the ships fly under foreign flags, they are not bound by most U.S. employment laws. The typical salary range for a crew member below the rank of officer is $300 to $500 per month, including room and board. Waiters, room stewards, and others who collect tips are often paid as little as $50 per month. "No American would work for that kind of money," says attorney Huggett. "The cruise lines have all the cheap labor they want and they can get rid of their employees any time they want. The only time labor costs them any money is when there's an injury."
Under general maritime law, shipping companies are obligated to pay for the maintenance and cure - the room, board, medical treatment, and, in some cases, the wages - of their injured employees. "The courts have always protected seamen because they were a wayward lot and easily exploited," Huggett explains. "It's traditional. Seamen are kind of ignorant, kind of childlike. And employers can kick the shit out of them when they want to."
In order to provide seafarers with more legal armaments, Congress passed the Jones Act of 1920, which has become the seaman's best friend and the shipping company's worst nightmare. The law gives a seaman the right to sue his employer in U.S. courts if the target of his suit has "significant contact" with the United States. (The meaning of "significant contact" is the subject of much litigation, but applies to most cruise lines that call in the Port of Miami.) Under the Jones Act, an injured seaman can sue for damages, including past and future lost wages, medical bills, pain and suffering, mental anguish, and disability.
Cruise line employees, maritime attorneys, and seafarers'-rights advocates say that the threat of high costs has led cruise lines to utilize an array of measures to cut medical expenses. First, critics say, a cruise line will try to keep its injured employees off U.S. soil, preferably on board the ship, or, if necessary, by seeking treatment in a foreign country, even when medical supplies on board and professional help abroad are inadequate. "The modus operandi of Carnival was to avoid bringing them back to Miami," says a former Carnival doctor who asked not to be identified. "My first day, the medical director of Carnival said, `Avoid bringing them back.' It was explicitly implied that the idea was, in Miami, you'd be bringing up more problems, there'd be more costs involved.
"If the higher-ups were hurt," the doctor continues, "there would be no questions. If the captain had a problem, he would be immediately sent off to the specialist on shore. But for the crew members, we were told, `Keep it on board, keep it on board.' If you wanted to refer a case off the ship, the medical executives would give you a hard time."
Spokesmen for several cruise companies, including Carnival, maintain that they follow a strict procedure for tending to sick or injured crew members, and never skimp on treatment. "It's cheaper to provide people with the best medical care we can, rather than something that could lead to further complications," asserts Robert Kritzman, general counsel for Norwegian Cruise Line, which is the third-largest cruise line in Miami and employs about 4450 workers on six ships. Adds Tim Gallagher, director of public relations for Carnival: "It is preferential for us to bring an injured crew member to the United States for treatment if they have to be treated on shore."
Preferential, perhaps, but not always carried out. In a 1990 case, for instance, a 21-year-old Indian kitchen worker fell in the galley of a Carnival ship and fractured his collarbone. The man, John Solomon, was taken off the ship at Cozumel, Mexico, where a local doctor inserted a pin to hold the bones in place.
According to a U.S. doctor who examined Solomon several weeks later, the pin operation is a rare - and inferior - procedure on these shores. "In common practice in the U.S., we don't operate on fractured clavicles," Dr. Steven Wender testified in a sworn deposition, and went on to explain that doctors in this country frequently employ a clavicle strap and a sling to treat a fractured collarbone. Furthermore, he noted, the pin inserted in Mexico had begun to slip out of the bones and was poking through the skin of Solomon's back. While Solomon's fracture eventually healed, doctors determined the healing process took about twice as long as normal. Solomon sued the company for pain and suffering, and the suit was settled this past month for $42,500 plus medical and living expenses, says attorney Paul Hoffman, who worked on the case.