March 26, 2018 – Los Angeles, CA – On Dec. 19, 2017, a tour bus loaded with cruise ship passengers crashed in the Costa Maya region of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Of the 31 passengers on the bus, 12 were killed, including an 11-year-old boy, making this one of the deadliest cruise ship excursion accidents in recent history.
Most of the victims were passengers aboard two Royal Caribbean cruise ships who disembarked to go on a day excursion to view Mayan ruins. Twenty-three were from a ship called the Celebrity Equinox, and four others were from the Serenade of the Seas, both of which launched from Florida.
According to investigators, the tour bus may have been speeding when it left the two-lane highway and rolled onto its side, coming to a stop in vegetation along the side of the road. An investigation into the crash will likely take months to complete.
Unfortunately, cruise ship excursion accidents happen more frequently than one might think. According to the Washington Post, more than a dozen incidents have occurred near Caribbean ports of call over the last decade.
The devastation wrought by these accidents raises the question of liability—are cruise lines liable for excursion accidents because they market and sell them? Or are excursion companies solely liable?
Cruise Lines Attempt to Skirt Liability for Excursion Accidents by Arguing That Vendors Are Independent Contractors
Cruise lines offer their passengers excursions and activities off the ship before and during voyages. Cruise companies not only marker these excursions, they implore passengers to purchase onshore activities directly from them, claiming that they are safer than activities offered by unaffiliated vendors at ports of call.
To put their minds at ease, cruise companies may tell passengers that they have performed the due diligence of vetting excursion vendors they contract with (it is highly likely they have not actually performed due diligence, per this article). This, coupled with encouraging passengers to buy excursions directly through the cruise companies, gives passengers the impression that excursion operators are agents of the cruise ships.
As for the vendors providing the onshore excursions, most are not subjected to the same safety standards with which vendors in the United States must comply.
When disaster strikes, passengers may find that the cruise ship’s promise of safety was far from a guarantee. It all starts with a look at the fine print of cruise tickets and excursion tickets. Let’s face it, passengers do not understand or simply are too distracted to read seven pages of fine print while on vacation.
The fine print for these tickets (contracts, to be more specific) contains language alleging that cruise companies are not actually vouching for the excursion operators, and that they do not view them as agents affiliated with the cruise company. On the contrary, when excursion accidents happen, cruise companies may assert that under the law, excursion companies providing onshore services are independent contractors.
Cruise Ships Use Forum Selection Clause to Avoid Liability
Another way that cruise lines skirt liability is through a key disclaimer known as a “forum selection clause” in the fine print of cruise tickets. This clause allows cruise companies to select the location where a potential products liability, personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit can be filed.
How does this allow cruise lines to avoid liability? It is far more difficult for plaintiffs to file a claim in a foreign court (let alone win the case) than it is in the U.S. Furthermore, victims are far less likely to pursue legal remedies if it means traveling to a foreign court, especially if they are still recovering from a personal injury.
Pursuing Justice for Cruise Ship Excursion Accidents
To put it simply, cruise ships have stacked the deck, so excursion accident claims are not decided based on merit, but rather on passengers having signed documents loaded with fine print that they may not know even exists, let alone understand.
The good news is that the facts and circumstances of an accident can be used to hold the cruise line accountable under several theories of liability. One theory is to argue that the excursion vendor is acting as an agent of the cruise ship, regardless of the cruise company’s representations to the contrary.
Even if the excursion vendor is not considered an agent of the cruise ship under the law, the cruise ship may be held liable under a theory of apparent agency, as the cruise company created the appearance of an agency relationship to sell more tickets for the excursion.
Another theory of liability—if an investigation reveals dangerous conditions on the part of the excursion vendor that the cruise company either knew or should have known about, then the cruise company may have had a duty to warn passengers or not contract with the vendor. An example of this would be if the excursion vendor had a demonstrated poor safety record, that could be evidence of negligence on the part of the cruise company.
The bottom line here: There are ways to hold parties accountable for cruise ship excursion accidents caused by negligence. If you have been involved in a cruise ship excursion accident, you should contact an experienced attorney to evaluate your case and help you decide on the best course of action.