U.S. Coast Guard Joins Investigation of Carnival Splendor Engine Room Fire
The Carnival Splendor, a 952-foot passenger cruise ship, made the news recently when an engine room fire left it floating helplessly about 55 miles off the northwestern coast of Mexico. Auxiliary power was restored, but air-conditioning, hot food service, hot water and telephone service was knocked out. Tugboats and the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan were dispatched to bring the stricken ship into port.
Like most passenger ships, the Carnival Splendor operates under the flag of another country, in this case Panama. Therefore, the investigation of the engine room fire will be done by Panama. However, due to the large number of American passengers aboard the vessel, the United States requested that it be allowed to join the investigation. According to a November 11, 2010, press release from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Panama has consented to both the NTSB and the U.S. Coast Guard joining the investigation. The Coast Guard specifically requested the NTSB's technical assistance for the investigation.
Some passengers aboard the Carnival Splendor will look to sue the cruise ship company for damages as a result of the aborted cruise. Attorneys are divided on the potential success of these suits. Reportedly, the cruise ticket issued for the voyage provided that if the completion of the voyage was prevented by the breakdown of the vessel, Carnival had the right to cancel the voyage without refund of any fares. Carnival did cancel the voyage, however, and has offered to refund the fare and a cruise of equal value in the future. Whether this offer will convince many passengers to forgo lawsuits remains to be seen.
Any litigation arising from this incident will most likely be heard by Federal courts applying admiralty law. Admiralty law has several quirks, which distinguish it from more common forms of law that citizens more frequently encounter. Issues such as the availability of a jury trial, the time a passenger has to start a lawsuit and where the lawsuit must be filed can have different answers than those usually obtained in a land-based case. If you are considering filing a lawsuit against a cruise ship company, you should confer with an attorney experienced in admiralty law as soon as possible in order to avoid waiving any rights you may have.