From where he lay in the drifting, battered lifeboat, Julian Bravo could see the fat American tourists leaning over the ship's railings eleven decks up, the lenses of their cameras and camcorders glinting in the Bahamian morning sun. And he could see the staff captain yelling urgently. But that was all very far away. Down in the lifeboat, minutes after an 80-foot free fall from the ship's top deck, Bravo was beyond pain. He couldn't move his legs. He was full of sea water. And remarkably, he was alive.
The crew's routine lifeboat drill on the Carnival Cruise Lines ship Fantasy, docked in Freeport, had begun smoothly. As the ship's captain barked orders over the loudspeakers, machinists, room stewards, busboys, and pursers scurried across the decks into their assigned positions. The passengers, those who hadn't already shuffled away onto buses for an air-conditioned tour of the island, watched. After 24 hours of Junior feeding the sea gulls and Grandma whooping it up at the slot machines, here was a little bit of action to capture on film for the folks back home.
"Everyone knew how to do it, theoretically," says Bravo, a Brazilian purser assigned to lifeboat no. 14 that day in February. "I personally had sixteen months' experience with the drill. It was no problem." When Bravo arrived at his lifeboat, he says, six other crew members also assigned to the boat were already in their seats, life preservers on. The purser stepped on board, took a seat near the bow, and an officer gave the command to free the craft from the side of the ship so it could be lowered by two cables, fore and aft, to the calm harbor below.
As the boat swung out and away from the ship, it suddenly slipped from the front cable. The bow dropped toward the water. For a second or two it hung from the rear cable, its helpless passengers clutching seats and gunwales. A woman on the ship's deck began to scream hysterically. The 49-foot lifeboat slipped from the rear cable and entered a nosedive. Three passengers were thrown clear and plunged into the water below, a fourth leaped clear an instant before the boat slammed into the harbor. The remaining three passengers, including Bravo, were trapped inside as the lifeboat pierced the water, torpedolike, began to fill with water, and then finally righted itself.
Miraculously, no one was killed. But as soon as the lifeboat hit the water, Bravo and his fellow victims were destined to enter a morass of injured cruise line employees, filled with motels and medical-care facilities, insurance claims and personal-injury litigation. It's a side of the cruise industry conspicuously missing from the travel brochures, a parallel universe where cruise line administrators battle plaintiffs and maritime lawyers, and where everybody's eyes are focused on the bottom line.
According to cruise ship employees, seafarers'-rights advocates, and maritime attorneys, many of the cruise lines that sail to Miami employ an array of ethically questionable and deceitful tactics to cut their losses after onboard accidents. Often, critics allege, the companies provide injured crew members with inferior medical treatment or use devious means to keep them out of the legal arena. Cruise line executives respond that the real money grubbers are the attorneys themselves, who have mastered the mechanics of turning a seaman's injuries into a bundle of cash.
As luxurious and relaxing as it is topside, life below decks on most cruise ships is cramped and stressful. Uneducated crews from impoverished countries toil for long hours and low wages in a warren of narrow hallways, steep staircases, and small rooms. They may labor for up to fourteen hours per day, seven days per week, remaining on board for eight months at a stretch without a vacation. In such an environment, accidents are bound to happen. One doctor, who has worked for several cruise lines and who requested anonymity, estimates that he treats an average of four injured workers on each three- to four-day cruise. Typically, he says, two of those injuries are serious enough to require that a worker take time off from the job, and an injury that requires medical attention on shore occurs about once every week.
Executives employed by several of the ten cruise lines that sail year-round from the Port of Miami refuse to provide onboard-accident statistics. But most claim the figures are low, especially given the type of work and the number of people who work on ships. "It's not a great number when you consider our work force shipboard is 8500 people," says Tim Gallagher, director of public relations for Carnival, whose nine ships make it the largest cruise line in Miami. "The injury occurrence on board our ships is less than it would be among a similar-size work force ashore in the United States - for instance Publix supermarkets or Home Depot."
Accidents involving crew members do occur frequently enough to have spawned a multimillion-dollar industry: cruise ship litigation. In the past twelve months, at least 70 complaints have been filed in Dade County Circuit Court against Carnival alone, most of them involving personal-injury claims on the part of crew members. Court records indicate that in the same period of time, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines - Miami's second largest cruise line with an eight-ship fleet - has been sued in Circuit Court at least 44 times. Norwegian Cruise Line has been named as a defendant on at least seventeen suits in the past year while its parent company, Kloster Cruise Ltd., has appeared as defendant on at least 28 lawsuits. Maritime attorneys and cruise line executives estimate that about ten percent of all personal-injury complaints go to trial; the rest are settled out of court.
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.
"My only beef with them about medical care is when no one is watching them and they send the employee to a foreign doctor," says Hoffman. "Technically they're providing maintenance and care, but how good is the care?"
In a case closed this year, an employer allegedly went one step further and completely cut off an injured crewman's medical treatment and support by booting him out of the country. Mateus Da Cunha Dos Santos was a Portuguese waiter working for Apollo Ship Chandlers, which operated the restaurants aboard the S.S. Britannia. After Dos Santos slipped on butter in the ship's kitchen and broke his wrist, he was treated by a Miami physician.
Seven weeks after the accident, doctors still had not given Dos Santos the go-ahead to return to work. In fact, at least one doctor determined the crewman needed another month before he'd be able to lift anything. So Apollo hired security guards to deal with the matter, says the crewman's attorney, Charles Lipcon. According to a 1988 decision reached in the Third District Court of Appeal, which ordered a trial in the matter, the guards took Dos Santos to the airport and put him on a plane home to Portugal even though he had one day left on his visa. "That was just one of their tricks for getting rid of injured crew members," Lipcon says. The case was eventually settled out of court. Lipcon says he can't recall the amount of money Dos Santos finally accepted, although he believes the waiter could have received a lot more if he had taken his case back to a jury.
Although no security guards were called in to deal with the crew members injured in Carnival's lifeboat accident, Julian Bravo says the medical treatment he received in the immediate aftermath was nothing short of appalling. He says he was X-rayed in Freeport about an hour and a half after the fall, but that he was subsequently returned to the ship and abandoned in his cabin with only a supply of Tylenol to see him through. "Nobody for the whole day or night went to see me, or even the doctor or captain," says the wiry, unshaven Brazilian, recalling the incident.
Carnival kept him on the Fantasy for a day before flying him back to the United States for treatment at the company's clinic in Miami, even though he could barely walk and his entire body was racked with pain. "What was wrong? Pain on back of head," says the 30-year-old, starting at the top and working down, patting each section of his body as he names it. "I had a huge pressure on my neck. My shoulder, the left one. My whole back. Both arms, my left elbow was bleeding. Left hip, swollen. Left buttock, swollen. It was difficult to put my pants on. Both legs." A cramped booth at the Howard Johnson Hotel restaurant on Alton Road in Miami Beach can barely contain him as he rattles off his litany of pain.
Frenetic and intense, Bravo is a flurry of movement and gesture, putting a match to a Marlboro Light, describing how the company further neglected his needs by sequestering him and three other victims in a Fort Lauderdale hotel even though they were receiving treatment at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. "I was there for one night," Bravo says, his voice rising in outrage. "They said all the hotels in Miami are full. They say full! Fuck that. I got really mad. I say, `Why do you send me up there? Bring me to Miami.'" Carnival immediately moved Bravo to Room 415 of the Howard Johnson Hotel in Miami Beach, affording him a view of Mount Sinai Medical Center and the traffic jams on the Julia Tuttle Causeway.
(Carnival executives defend their handling of the lifeboat accident, saying every victim received proper and expert medical treatment. Still, the incident is far from over. According to Carnival spokesman Gallagher, all seven victims have lawsuits against the cruise line pending in Dade County Circuit Court.)
Bravo says his frustration grew when a Carnival agent contacted him by phone at his hotel and told him to pack his bags for Brazil. Although a Carnival spokesman denies the allegation, Bravo says it was what inspired him to call a lawyer.
In cheap hotels and motels all over Miami - the Howard Johnson on Alton Road and the one downtown on Biscayne Boulevard, the Days Inn next to Jackson Memorial Hospital, the Budget Inn Motel on Biscayne Boulevard, and several hotels near the airport - dozens of injured seafarers nurse their injuries, receive treatment, and wait for their lawyers to resolve their cases. These people are not to be mistaken for the crew members who are just passing through - all the cruise lines make use of the hotels for employees travelling between the ships and home. But those people come and go. The injured stay. "What can I do? I stay here in my room, in the hotel, go to the doctors, go visit my friends at Days Inn," Bravo says. "I do nothing. This is no good."
Later that night, Bravo and nine other crewmen are lounging around in a room at the Days Inn near the hospital, killing time and staring vacantly at the television set. The roar of the chariot-race scene from Ben Hur competes with the roar of traffic along State Road 836. Since July, Room 542 has been home to Rigoberto Mondragon and Yader Cortez, both of whom were injured in the Carnival lifeboat fall. Mondragon says he injured his neck, ribs, shoulder, elbow, legs, and kidney in the fall; Cortez suffered injuries to his neck, back, chest, knee, and testicles.
Among their acquaintances is Jose Martinez, a 38-year-old Nicaraguan who was crushed beneath a pile of tumbling luggage in an elevator in 1987 on the Carnival ship Celebration. Gustavo Escobar, a 30-year-old worker from Honduras, fell 60 feet off suspended scaffolding as he painted the side of Carnival's Ecstasy in October. Only two or three of the men in the room ever made it past secondary school, and none but Bravo has any facility with English. "They have poor backgrounds, they come from farms," Bravo explains as Charlton Heston careens around the flickering racetrack. "They don't know anything."
They know enough to hire a lawyer. And to a man, each has pinned his hopes on one of Miami's maritime attorneys to get him out of the country, if not with his health, at least with a healthy pocketful of cash. And so it comes as no surprise to seafarers'-rights advocates that agents for cruise lines will go to great lengths to separate the laborers from the litigators. "In some cases they try to put injured crew members as far away as possible so they can't reach legal assistance," says Maria Jimenez, volunteer coordinator of the Seamans' Church Institute of South Florida, a seafarers'-advocacy group. "As soon as we know there's been an accident, we try to get them a lawyer. Crew members need a voice. It's not acceptable that a person goes home sick without means of support."
Cruise-line executives admit that in cases that threaten to enter the legal arena, they will often attempt to settle with injured crew members before they hire a lawyer. Such a settlement, say attorneys and cruise ship employees, might involve cash, a pay raise, or a vacation. Other times it involves the art of gentle persuasion. "There are attempts to discourage guys by saying that all a lawyer's going to do for you is delay the case for months and months and take a big chunk of your money," says attorney Brett Rivkind. "They'll say it's better for you to settle with us. They head off the lawyers."
Rigoberto Mondragon, one of the victims of the lifeboat accident, says he was approached soon after the accident by Carnival executives with offers to make. "They said, `Don't get a lawyer,' and asked that if one of the others in the accident gets a lawyer that I should go and tell them. They offered me a cruise in a passenger cabin, as well." Carnival spokesman Tim Gallagher denies that such a conversation ever occurred.
"If we offer them a deal, that's business," asserts Norwegian Cruise Line attorney Kritzman. "There really isn't a strategy to do that. It's like any other loss prevention, if there's an incident of some concern. The bottom line is there's nothing unethical about doing this. Is there some grand scheme to keep crew members away from lawyers and out of the United States? No, not really. It's just claims-handling."
Attorney William Huggett and his colleagues contend that some cruise lines don't just skip around near the ethics line, they bound right over it. "They tell the crew members sometimes that they don't have a right to a lawyer," says Huggett. "What does a twenty-year-old guy fresh out of the fields of Guatemala know about his legal rights? Nothing. Does he even know how to operate the American phone system? They operate on ignorance and fear of the company." But an officer who has worked for several cruise lines for the last few years says crew members are not as naive as Huggett suggests. "Word gets around real quick that so-and-so made $75,000 on a back injury," says the officer, who asked that he not be identified. "Cruise lines are big companies and there are people who will try to beat the system. So the cruise line will try to protect itself. But in that protection," he adds, "they are unfair."
A signed contract between a seaman and a lawyer doesn't seem to have stopped cruise lines from negotiating with crew members, either. Huggett has sued Norwegian Cruise Line and its insurer for damages in excess of $50,000,000, alleging that Norwegian illegally stole his client, Cameron Castrillo, who worked as a busboy on the ship Seaward. In October 1988, when Castrillo interceded in a fight between two co-workers, he suffered a brain bruise and a depressed skull fracture.
Castrillo employed Huggett and filed a suit against the cruise company, alleging that representatives of the insurance company and Norwegian Cruise Line contacted Castrillo in July 1989 in his hometown of Manila, Philippines. The agents purportedly induced the busboy to settle the case for $100,000 by telling him that he wouldn't receive as much money if the case were to go to trial, and that if he "went to trial, in the end he would lose more money because his attorney would interfere with his settlement." In the suit, Huggett further alleges that the agents promised the busboy a better job if he settled the claim.
In a counterclaim, Norwegian has charged Huggett and his client with conspiring to commit fraud, alleging that Castrillo agreed to settle with Norwegian just so Huggett could accuse the company of stealing his client. Castrillo, Norwegian claims, "knowingly and willfully" entered into the settlement and "entered into a plan and conspiracy to fraudulently induce [Norwegian] to settle its case."
Despite the fact that they ceaselessly sue the shipping companies, Miami's maritime lawyers say the companies are cleaning up their act. And the attorneys think they deserve some of the credit. "If I see something I don't like, I'll sue them to stop them from doing it again," says Charles Lipcon. Adds William Huggett: "Carnival used to be the worst of the lot insofar as working conditions, but they gradually got better largely because Lipcon and I sued them a lot."
Cruise line executives, in turn, have few nice words to say about their nemeses, favoring instead the view that the lawyers are glorified vultures feeding off the seafarers' injuries. "They frequently like to portray themselves as the watchdog for these people, and how much do they get paid for being a watchdog?" asks Carnival's Tim Gallagher. "It seems like pretty good pay for a watchdog. Are they doing this out of social consciousness or are they making millions of dollars doing this kind of thing? It's so easy for a crew member to sue you, even if it's not your fault. And they will probably get something for it."
Says another cruise line executive who requested anonymity: "Some of these cases get to be absurd costwise, even in cases where there is no liability. There are claims that are absolutely ridiculous."
Higher-ups for several cruise companies also charge attorneys with conducting unethical practices themselves. Contrary to the rules that govern attorneys, the cruise company officials allege, some lawyers or their hired agents solicit clients, scouring hospitals and hotels around Miami in search of injured crew members. They also say some attorneys distribute their cards on the docks and pay crew members to tell them when someone gets injured. And they employ tactics of coercion and deception to win clients. Says one executive: "Many crew members have been scared into hiring an attorney."
Not every crew member is an impressionable, unwitting player in this often protracted tug-of-war. Certainly not Julian Bravo, who in the past ten months has been anything but passive. He has hired not one, but two lawyers. And fired them both. He has requested a second, third, fourth, and fifteenth opinion about his condition, consulting doctors from Mount Sinai Medical Center to the University of Miami to the National Parkinson Foundation. And he has written letters to the Brazilian Consulate in Miami and to the Brazilian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
"I still feel pain," he says. "The pain never goes away. I feel dizziness, I can't run, can't do quick movements. I'm not able to stay more than two hours standing up. This," he says, shaking the cane that accompanies him everywhere, "it is to prevent me from falling down."
Amid the haze from a depleting supply of Marlboro Lights, Bravo describes in relentless stream-of-consciousness his struggle to get well. In a single breath, he plays the role of two doctors, an attorney, an immigration authority, the entire Carnival claims office, and himself. Furious, he tells how a battery of X-rays, blood tests, and magnetic resonance imaging and bone scans have turned up nothing except muscular trauma, how two psychiatrists suggested he seek some psychiatric counseling, a recommendation he has dismissed out of hand.
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Bravo's former lawyer, Charles Lipcon, says he has no quarrel with the medical treatment Carnival provided when he represented the Brazilian. But the seaman believes his lawyers have been in the same bed with the cruise line executives and the medical professionals all along. This vast conspiracy theory is laid out in a detailed, 70-page, handwritten treatise, which Bravo calls his "dossier."
"It seems now that I'm not going to be cured, so I'm going to go to Europe," says Bravo forlornly, adding that he now plans to approach Carnival to settle the issue. "Ten months in a hotel with only pain medicine? I'll drop everything, any lawsuit. I just want to get out of this place."
Beneath the frustration and the paranoia, beyond the conspiracy theories and the stubbornness (he refused to be photographed for this story), Bravo has reduced his situation to its starkest components. "In this world of lawyers and the cruise ships, everything's made of money," he says. "They put money ahead of human values. They don't care what the patient's feeling." He extracts one more cigarette from the box. "The lawyers want business. The company wants business."
Bravo strikes a match, lights up, and takes a powerful drag, the red coal chugging quickly toward his lips. "Money? In this circumstance, money is dirty. I can't enjoy life properly. I can't work properly. I can't walk properly. What difference is that money going to mean for me? I'll leave them to do what they want. Just treat me and send me back. They can stick their money in their ass if they like. But my health. They must give my health back.