Tourism & Cruises

A mom says her daughter was assaulted on a cruise ship. The lawsuit unfolds in Miami.

Child sexual abuse statistics in the United States

One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
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One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

The mother of a 14-year-old girl is suing MSC cruises after she says a crew member sexually assaulted and battered her daughter in a candy shop on a cruise ship.

The alleged incident happened inside the MSC Divina’s candy shop after the ship left Miami in March 2017 and was docked in San Juan, Puerto Rico, one of the eight-day cruise’s ports of call.

On Wednesday, both parties in the suit agreed to stop mediation efforts and to continue settlement negotiations. Court records say that if the case is not resolved before May 8, the two sides will reconvene mediation on May 8. A trial is scheduled for July 15 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Peter Hunt, an attorney with the Palm Beach Gardens-based maritime LaBovick Law Group, is representing the girl’s mother in the civil suit against Geneva-based MSC Cruises. He said that the popular MSC cruise line violated the International Safety Management Code by failing to protect its passengers from sexual assault and battery.

MSC is being represented by Coral Gables-based Maltzman & Partners.

On Friday, MSC Cruises responded to the Miami Herald’s request for comment.

In its statement. MSC said it “is fully committed to the security of its guests and has fully cooperated with law enforcement officials as soon as this matter came to our attention. This case involves a former crewmember who acted in violation of company rules by touching a passenger’s buttocks during a goodbye hug that lasted fewer than three seconds.

“The incident occurred in an onboard store which was open to customers at the time,” MSC’s statement continued. “The crewmember was promptly terminated and the company has expressed its most sincere apologies to the family.

“MSC Cruises has a zero-tolerance for any improper behavior on board its ships and will continue to apply the highest standards for passenger security. We regret that the family has chosen to file a civil lawsuit seeking money damages from this incident,” MSC said.

Alleged incident at sea

According to Hunt, the girl — who was 14 at the time — was attacked by an MSC Cruises employee four days after her parents disembarked with her younger brother for the U.S. mainland after the boy allegedly had a finger amputated by a cabin door aboard the MSC Divina.

The girl stayed on the Divina to continue the cruise in the care of her grandparents and older sister, according to Hunt.

The original lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in June 2018, said the girl was in the ship’s candy shop when a Divina employee attacked her. The suit does not name the crew member.

The man, Hunt said, “was able to use the girl’s cruise ID card to find out what had happened to her brother and that her parents had left the ship.”

In South Florida court

The suit, which has worked its way through the courts through mediation and settlement negotiations, charges that the minor was “injured due to the fault and negligence of MSC” for “failing to provide reasonably safe conditions” aboard the Divina.. Among other charges, the mother’s suit alleges that MSC did not investigate the crew member’s background, criminal record and employment history before he started working for the company and didn’t adequately monitor its passengers.

The suit said the girl “was injured about her body and extremities,” has pain and suffering and mental anguish, along with “great shame, psychological trauma and scarring” and “aggravation of preexisting conditions [and] the loss of the capacity for the enjoyment of life.”

In a statement released on Thursday, Hunt said: “She is having panic attacks at school, has withdrawn from being in large crowds and is now extremely cautious around males. Maritime law is very clear that the cruise line has a non-delegable duty to protect its passengers from sexual assault and battery by its crew members. The cruise line is strictly liable when it breaches this duty.”

In answering the original suit, filed with the court in August 2018, MSC and its attorneys Jeffrey Maltzman, Steve Holman and T. Alexander Devine at Maltzman & Partners, said that maritime law governs actions aboard cruises but denied that any damages exist or that the cruise line has liability for any of the claims concerning this alleged incident.

MSC acknowledged to the court that the girl was a passenger on its cruise and that MSC “has a duty of reasonable care under the circumstances to all passengers on board the subject vessel” but denied that MSC breached its duty.

Incident reports on cruises

According to incident reports released by the Department of Transportation, sexual assault is the most common crime reported on cruise ships. In 2018, cruise lines reported 120 alleged crimes to the transportation department, including 82 alleged sexual assaults, Business Insider reported. By comparison, there were 22 thefts over $10,000.

And since 2016, there have been 220 allegations of sexual assault reported to the DOT, according to a report Tuesday in the Miami New Times.

The quarterly incident reports — which also include numbers for thefts over $10,000 (the second most reported crime at sea behind sexual assault), assault with serious bodily injury, suspicious death, homicide, kidnapping, tampering with the vessel and missing U.S. nationals — touch every cruise line, including the big three: Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian.

In the quarter running from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2018, there were 22 reports of sexual assault on 12 cruise lines, reported in accordance with the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010.

Of these reported sexual assault incidents in the most recent quarter, Carnival Cruise Lines had the most reported incidents with eight, seven of which involved passengers and one reported by a crew member. Royal Caribbean was next with six, all passengers. There were no reported incidents of any kind on an MSC cruise in that quarter.

MSC at PortMiami

MSC, the fourth-largest cruise company and the largest privately held cruise company in the world, has its U.S. headquarters in Fort Lauderdale and has been sailing out of PortMiami since 2012.

This week, the Miami-Dade board of commissioners approved the construction of a new cruise ship terminal for MSC Cruises and eyes its completion by 2022. The terminal would be large enough to accommodate two of MSC’s forthcoming 7,000-passenger ships at once.

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Miami Herald Real Time/Breaking News reporter Howard Cohen, a 2017 Media Excellence Awards winner, has covered pop music, theater, health and fitness, obituaries, municipal government and general assignment. He started his career in the Features department at the Miami Herald in 1991.

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