Two years ago, a 10-year-old from New York died in the swimming pool on the Norwegian Gem. Witnesses who saw the girl drown said the cruise line clearly messed up: One woman said passengers who were doctors and nurses began life-saving efforts while cruise workers "watched and looked panicked."
"The girl had a pulse," she said. "Bottom line, NCL dropped the ball on this big time."
Sadly, though, the horrifying scene has been all too commonplace on cruise ships. In the past four years, at least eight children and three adults have drowned or nearly drowned in onboard pools. Yet until recently, none of the three major cruise lines — Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival — thought lifeguards were worth the expenditure.
This past Wednesday, Norwegian Cruise Line, whose corporate office is in Miami, announced it would finally begin hiring lifeguards. The move comes after several lawsuits against NCL and the other major cruise lines, including one by the family of the 10-year-old, Katelyn Blair, that was settled in February.
Though the terms of the settlement are confidential, the family's attorney, Michael Winkleman, says he believes the suit was a factor in Norwegian's decision to hire lifeguards.
"I do think the Blair family doing what they did
New Times wrote about the issue in a September cover story explaining cruise lines' negligence in hiring lifeguards. Simply put, existing laws make it so cruise lines don't face major financial penalties when a passenger dies at sea. Maritime attorney Jim Walker, who has railed against cruise ship drownings for years, has theorized it's simply cheaper for the companies to be sued than to pay the wages of lifeguards.
"This is just kind of the cost of doing business," he told New Times last year. "A couple times a year, they're going to have a kid slip under the water, and they know they're going to have their insurance pay out a little bit."
A growing number of lawsuits against the cruise lines is turning the tide, Winkleman believes. Disney began hiring lifeguards in 2013 after 4-year-old Chase Lykken nearly drowned in a Donald Duck-themed pool. Late last year, Miami-based Royal Caribbean quietly announced it too would begin hiring lifeguards.
"There's no financial motivation for the cruise lines to do this," Winkleman says. "The only motivation was the public perception, the public outcry."
Walker says the lawyers representing cruise lines might be worried about what happened in the Lykken family lawsuit against Disney. Because cruise lines can be held responsible for lifetime medical costs if a child survives a drowning, industry experts have speculated that Disney is on the hook for millions of dollars of Chase Lykken's expenses.
"My take with the Norwegian lifeguards is it's not just because it's the right thing to do or some moral rebirth or something," Walker says. "NCL is the most cost-conscious cruise line out there. They nickel-and-dime passengers, counting every penny, and it's a real economic risk if something happens to a child who survives."
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Norwegian's announcement leaves Carnival as the only major cruise line that has yet to face the music. It's unclear if Carnival, which is based in Doral, plans to follow suit with its competitors by hiring lifeguards. Last year, spokesman Roger Frizzell said there had been only a handful of drownings on cruise ships in relation to the number of passengers traveling, and "much less so than land-based incidents."
Moving into the summer cruising season, though, there's "a heck of a lot of pressure" on Carnival to hire lifeguards, Winkleman says, especially if it wants to cater to families traveling with young children.
"That's why I say the public needs to speak with their pocketbook," he says. "The industry standard has become to have lifeguards on their ships. Carnival is now the outlier. When another incident occurs — and it's only a matter of time — they've got a lot of explaining to do."