CRUISE INDUSTRY

Cruise hearing explores consumer protection issues

 

A Senate committee hearing Wednesday sought to emphasize the need for greater consumer protection for cruise passengers.

hsampson@MiamiHerald.com

The U.S. Senate’s most vocal critic of cruise lines took the industry to task again Wednesday for resisting his efforts to mandate greater consumer protections for passengers.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., convened the hearing in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, which he chairs. He was pushing for the passage of measures included in legislation he proposed last year, the Cruise Passenger Protection Act.

Since last month, Rockefeller has been trying to include some provisions from the act in the Coast Guard reauthorization bill.

They include:

• Modifying existing law to make sure crimes that occur on cruise ships are fully reported to the public and available on the Department of Transportation website.

• Requiring cruise lines to report crimes within 24 hours of the time a complaint is made, make log books available to the FBI and report a crime committed in port to the FBI before departing.

• Creating a consumer protection website at the DOT for cruise passengers.

• Establishing a consumer protection advisory committee of the U.S. transportation department that focuses on the cruise industry .

• Requiring a study of medical professionals on ships.

“The cruise industry, I’m happy to say, is not happy that I’m holding this hearing,” said Rockefeller, who is retiring at the end of the year. “They’re very unhappy. Those companies don’t like it when Congress and the media talk about the risk of taking a cruise vacation.”

In a statement, the Cruise Lines International Association said the hearing “presented a distorted picture of an industry that has an exceptional guest care and safety record” and argued that Rockefeller’s legislation would unnecessarily add another layer of federal regulation.

CLIA said the act “is a solution in search of a problem” and argued that it would “increase costs to taxpayers, cruise passengers, and cruise lines with no real value for the public.”

At the hearing, four witnesses spoke about various nightmare scenarios during cruises — sexual assault, fire and sudden collapse that eventually led to death. Three of the speakers were directly involved in the incidents. A fourth represented a 15-year-old girl with autism who was raped on a ship in 2012.

The stories varied, but the speakers touched on a common theme: In a moment of crisis, they felt like they had no rights and no one to look out for them.

After fire disabled the Carnival Triumph last year, passenger Kimberly Ware said she stayed in her cabin as much as possible in constant fear of falling ill as sanitation became “nonexistent.” During Wednesday’s hearing, she described the infamous “poop cruise,” with biohazard bags doubling as toilets and long lines for food.

“The entire ship had quickly become a refugee camp,” she said.

In a statement, Carnival acknowledged that guests “experienced uncomfortable conditions” during the ordeal and pointed out that they got full refunds, charges reimbursed, a free future cruise and $500 compensation. They pointed out that Ware is part of a group suing the cruise line “for the purpose of opportunistic financial gain.”

Like Ware, the other witnesses are currently or were engaged in litigation with the cruise lines involved.

Laurie Dishman, of California, recounted her experience when a a Royal Caribbean International cruise ship worker raped her in her stateroom during a cruise in 2006; the worker was not arrested but was eventually fired and sent home, she said.

“Cruise consumers have virtually no rights or protections. I know this firsthand,” said Dishman, a board member for International Cruise Victims, which works with victims of crime on cruise ships. “I know exactly how it feels to have no rights and to be victimized by a cruise line a second time after their employee assaulted me.”

Late Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Miami-based Royal Caribbean International said in an email that 10 FBI agents boarded the ship and conducted a full investigation in 2006 that resulted in no arrests. Since then, the spokeswoman said, the company has met with Dishman “and obtained her valuable input on improvements she feels we could make.”

“We have made significant improvements in both our prevention efforts as well as our response protocols,” the spokeswoman said. “We appreciate Ms. Dishman's views and suggestions and her willingness to share them with us.”

Mississippi resident Amanda Butler, whose mother died several days after collapsing on a Carnival Cruise Lines ship in 2013, said workers on the ship “did everything wrong.” She and her family have recommended several health-related improvements, including placing clearly designated automated external defibrillators throughout ships; training all employees in CPR and ensuring physicians are available or on call for immediate response.

Carnival said in a statement that Butler’s mother Violet was resuscitated on the ship and transported to a facility on land. AEDs are available on ships, the cruise line said, and said doctors and nurses aboard are certified in CPR and advanced cardiac life support. A spokeswoman also said that the line’s medical facilities “meet or exceed the guidelines established by the cruise ship medicine section of the American College of Emergency Physicians.”

Rockefeller said stories like those he heard Wednesday — and has heard during previous hearings and from others who have contacted him — are the reason he continues to push for more legislation.

“We’re going to win this one,” he said.

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