Cruise safety ashore – whose responsibility is it?


This story is a nightmare. A family on a Carnival Cruise that stopped in St. Thomas chose to forego the ship’s shore excursions and went on their own to Coki Beach.

On the way back, while riding in an open-air bus, they were caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting and their 15-year-old daughter was shot and killed.

The family sued Carnival Cruise Lines, saying the cruise line should have known the area was dangerous. A judge threw out the case last year, but a federal appeals court has overturned that decision, which now sends the case back to a court in Miami.

This case is a long way from being over, but it is potentially a very scary precedent.

Personal disclaimer — I haven’t been to Coki Beach in many years.

Coki Beach is a popular snorkeling beach near an aquarium called Coral World. Online reviews are mixed. The beach gets a mixture of locals and tourists — some people love it, others say it’s “seedy” and crowded with lots of pushy beach vendors.

The issue here, though, seems less about this particular beach than about who’s really responsible for cruise passengers’ safety? What constitutes safe vs. unsafe?

Some parts of the world are clearly more dangerous than others, but even “safe” ports can have dangers.

For example, San Francisco, near where I live, has some areas where few locals venture, some even a few blocks from Union Square, a top shopping area. San Francisco also has had a number of injuries and even deaths of pedestrians lately, involving everything from cars to buses to bikes. Should a cruise line warn people not to walk?

Most cities across the world have some areas that reasonable people would consider dangerous. Should cruise lines need to list them? Not to mention what about locations within a few hours’ drive of the port? Jamaica, for example, often gets a bad rap, but most of the violence has been in Kingston, far from the port (and that has been declining in the past two years).

What kind of dangers should be covered? Drug sales, violence, pickpockets, traffic, various diseases, the local food and water?

Presumably, language issues can also add to potential danger, which would complicate the warnings. While cruise lines tend to have “port talks” and give out fliers with maps (usually shopping focused), neither of these are mandatory. So what happens if during a port talk a staffer tells passengers to avoid an area and someone who doesn’t attend ends up getting mugged or hurt?

Realistically, it’s not possible to require that passengers only leave the ship on cruise line shore excursions.

I’m not advocating that cruise lines completely ignore passenger safety or knowingly hide information. But, on the other hand, where’s the individual responsibility? In an age when destination information is easily available on the Internet, doesn’t the individual have some responsibility? Or course, this begs the question, “What is reasonable risk?”

Curiously enough, the only real problem I’ve had ashore was on a cruise line private island snorkel excursion, when the staff ignored and/or downplayed jellyfish warnings; a number of passengers, including myself, got caught in a swarm of them. (No major harm done, but the stings certainly weren’t fun and they were very scary. The cruise line in question sent us discount vouchers afterwards.)

Personally, my sense is that, in the absence of exceptional events, the legal burdens involved with going ashore should be on passengers. But what do you think, Consumer Traveler readers?

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons by Daquella manera

  • James

    They “…went on their own to Coki Beach.” The cruise line didn’t take them to Coki Beach. If an airline had brought them to the area and they’d taken a bus from their hotel to the beach would the hotel or the airline be responsible? I’m sorry, the went on their own and they were on their own as far as their safety and security is concerned. There’s no case here.

  • AirlineEmployee

    The cruise line ?……….If I fly to a dangerous city should I sue the airline for taking me there ?

  • DCTA

    I really am surprised at the court reinstating this suit. I honestly don’t get it. BUT I believe in the end, the court will come down on the side of the cruiseline on this one.

  • Anonymous

    More money for the lawyers. Good for our GDP numbers.

  • wiseword

    If they really want to be safe, they should stay in their staterooms. Someone might trip on a slippery deck. Or, God forbid, get sunburned.

  • Anonymous

    Several years ago my niece’s friend’s family took a tour to China. They wanted to see Tiananmen Square (remember the Tank Man?). One morning, the Mom and Dad walked to the square (leaving my niece’s friend in their hotel). They did not come back. They were stabbed dead by a crazy man (presumably protesting about something against the Chinese Government). Is China responsible? Is the tour company responsible? Is the airline responsible? Is the hotel responsible? One would think it is safe in that square (unless you want to get run over by a tank).

    Remember the two NYC cops who fired a lot of rounds and killed the crazed T-shirt designer near the Empire State Building. The bullets hit a number of bystanders. I guess you can sue NYC since it has deep pockets. But the point is even if you think a city or place is relatively safe, there is always a small probability you can get hurt or killed.

  • Simone

    I don’t think Carnival is responsible for this horrible tragedy. That said, I do believe that cruiselines should warn passengers about potential dangers. In this case, local gang war shoot outs were prevelant and Carnival should have warned people.
    I was on cruise once in the Baltic, which is for the most part quite a safe place. However, our cruiseline did put printed warnings (w/ the daily newspaper delivered to our room nightly) as to what dangers to be aware of. One city was notorious for pickpockets who rode the crowded trains, trams & buses w/ razoeblades and ripped open the bottom of knapsacks & knew how to break straps off of handbags. Everyone was extremely grateful for the info and hence, more cautious if they took the public transporation.
    In Rio, upon check-in to our hotel, the desk clerk made us aware of all the pickpockets and scams. While we knew about them beforehand, we were appreciative of the warning info.

  • Anonymous

    Losing a child is heartbreaking, and I understand the desire to be able to blame someone for that loss. But in this case the blame rests with the shooter, not the cruise line.

  • stevenhernandez31

    I would say this again that the entire responsibility in-terms of protection is of the main management there. Everyone was incredibly thankful for the details and hence, more careful if they took the community transporation.

  • Chris2

    The family is responsible. Anything can happen anywhere. They were not on a cruise line ground tour, but on their own.