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