On March 6, the peripatetic Micky Arison, chairman and CEO of Miami-based Carnival Corp., took time off from running a pro basketball team and the world's largest cruise line to fly to Washington, D.C., with a delegation of his fellow maritime tycoons. Their goal: To persuade key U.S. Congressmen to make it even harder for passengers and seamen to sue cruise ship operators.
Periodically, a bill known as the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act zooms through Congress like a Cigarette boat crossing Biscayne Bay. The document sets forth policy directives for the Coast Guard much as an appropriations bill doles out money. It has nothing to do with cruise ships, yet for almost a year the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act has been stalled between the House and Senate largely because of a two-page amendment inserted by cruise industry supporters.
Last May a unanimous House passed the Coast Guard bill without discussion, cruise ship amendment intact. The Senate in late summer approved a different version A one that dumped the cruise ship section. By last week the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act was officially bound for a conference committee charged with reconciling the two versions.
The legal reforms contained in the amendment prohibit foreign crew members from suing their employers in U.S. courts, as they now can. Major cruise lines routinely register their ships abroad, in countries such as Panama and Liberia, to avoid U.S. taxes and regulation. And while most passengers are U.S. citizens, most crew members aren't. Under the new law, an injured or disgruntled worker would be required to file lawsuits either in his home country or in the nation where his ship is registered. Trade unionists, women's groups, and maritime lawyers say the effect of the law is to strip cruise ship employees of any realistic redress when cheated or abused by their bosses.
The legislation also appears to limit malpractice awards for passengers who get sick during a voyage and are subsequently dropped off in foreign ports to seek medical attention. And it prohibits lawsuits by customers who suffer "emotional distress, mental suffering, or psychological injury" while aboard a cruise ship but can't prove "substantial" physical harm, or the "actual risk" of such.
"Shippers have said they don't want to get sued frivolously by some passenger who ordered strawberry ice cream and got mint chocolate chip, but this also covers rapes that occur on cruise ships," says Miami maritime lawyer Charles Lipcon. "In the case of a passenger who is raped, there is often minimal physical harm but substantial emotional damage. The cruise lines settle these cases so fast it makes your head spin, and they get the victim to sign a secrecy agreement. This could eliminate the need for any settlement at all."
John Sansone, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the five-million-member International Transport Workers' Federation, says the legislation is couched in language so vague that it would affect many more seamen than just those who work on cruise ships. And by reducing the liability of shipping companies, he argues, it will make foreign labor even cheaper, thereby hurting the employment prospects of U.S. seamen.
"This is the most un-American piece of legislation I've ever seen," fumes Sansone, whose union began flooding senatorial offices with faxes and letters this month. "Let's say there's 30 guys on a ship and they've been cheated out of $1000 each for a month. As it stands, they can get a lawyer to file suit. Then a judge may send U.S. marshals to arrest the ship. The ship will remain in port until the matter is settled in court, or else post a substantial bond. This would deny all that. It's very extreme. This legislation would only put gobs and gobs of money in the ship owners' pockets, which are already full of gobs and gobs of money."
Cruise industry spokesmen say their views have been grossly distorted, and that their legislation is designed to reduce thousands of meritless nuisance suits, unclog U.S. courts, and protect cruise lines from exorbitant medical malpractice actions filed by seamen -- not passengers.
A position paper drawn up by the International Council of Cruise Lines, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group that represents 28 cruise lines, asserts that the proposed limitation on malpractice liability pertains only to crew members treated at U.S. medical facilities, not to passengers treated abroad. Yet the amendment passed by the House in May refers to "a suit by any person," and does not specify where the shoreside medical care must take place.
The ICCL statement also asserts that taking away the right of foreign crew members to sue in U.S. courts doesn't leave them without legal remedy. The amendment only pertains to seamen who have signed employment contracts or collective bargaining agreements saying they're willing to settle disputes in a country outside the U.S.; and cruise operators are required to show up in court in the country specified.
The position paper states that its proposals have no impact on the right of rape victims to sue, and says a claim by the American Trial Lawyers' Association to the contrary is "totally unfounded and completely misrepresents the content of the amendment." Yet the existing House bill only covers injurious acts "intentionally inflicted by the manager, agent, master, owner, or operator" of a ship -- making no mention of crew.
"In order to clarify our intent on this issue, the term crew member will be inserted," promises ICCL spokeswoman Mary Lynch. "We have also clarified that the provision in no way affects claims involving sexual assault or rape."
Lynch dismisses such conflicts as issues of semantics, explaining, "Initially there were some ways that you could have misconstrued the House bill. Like any type of legislation, there are various ways to interpret it."
Senate staffers say Miami cruise ship executives apparently don't think their lobbyists are doing enough to sway opinion on Capitol Hill. They confirm that Carnival Corp.'s Arison, along with Celebrity Cruise Lines president Richard Sasso, met two Wednesdays ago in Washington with Sen. Larry Pressler and separately with other members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Pressler, a South Dakota Republican, chairs the committee, a number of whose members will now decide on the fate of the cruise ship amendment. Other conferees will be chosen this week from the House of Representatives.
This is quite irregular," says an aide to Sen. Ernest Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat who opposes the amendment. "It's the first time in years they haven't passed [the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act] quickly. And if it gets forced into a conference committee, that would be unprecedented. In the past we've worked out these differences informally. The fear among opponents is that we'll lose some procedural advantages if it does go to conference. No one knows if the cruise ship people have the votes to pull this off. But they figure they've gotten 50 percent there, they don't have much to lose."
U.S. Rep. Don Young, who first introduced the cruise ship amendment in the House last year, will likely be one member of the conference committee. Capitol Hill sources say he is counting on the support of fellow Alaska Republican, Sen. Ted Stevens. But in the face of stiff lobbying by amendment opponents, that support may now hang in the balance. "At this time, the senator is still determining his position," says a Stevens aide. Holland America Line and Holland America Westours, two subsidiaries of Carnival Corp., are the biggest cruise shippers and tour operators in Alaska and Western Canada.
Lynch, the cruise ship industry spokeswoman, declines to discuss her organization's legislative strategy. She points out that cruise ship executives from Miami had a reason to be in Washington on March 6: the Travel Industry Association of America's annual Travel and Tourism Industry Unity Dinner.
For now, Florida's elected heavyweights are keeping their distance from the amendment. Aides to senators Connie Mack and Bob Graham say cruise industry lobbyists and corporate execs have had no recent contact with their bosses.
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"I'm not sure Senator Graham has a position," says one staffer. "As things come more to the forefront, maybe he will."
"At this point Senator Mack has not made up his mind," remarks another. "He is waiting to see the final language."
Cruise ship executives in Miami did not respond to requests for interviews regarding the cruise ship amendment and their trip to the nation's capital.