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Cruise Lines' Dirty Work?

By paul motter

With the BP Oil Rig disaster two maritime laws have come under scrutiny. The first is the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) and the other is the Jones Act. Both laws were enacted in 1920, during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.

The Death on the High Seas Act limits the liability of a carrier operating in international waters (whether it is a ship, jet or oil rig) in the case of death due to negligence by the carrier. To summarize, the Death on the High Seas Act says that the dependents of the worker's family are entitled to compensation from the employer only equal to what the worker would have been able to earn over the his lifetime had he remained alive and continued in the same job.

Cruise line critics seem to think this law is unfair, in the sense that if a person is killed "in the line of duty" while working on a cruise ship or oil rig that the family should be entitled to far more than the worker's potential lifetime's wages in a lump sum. They should also be entitled to pain and suffering, alienation of affection and punitive damages.

Now, if a soldier in the United States military is killed in the line of duty his family is not entitled to sue the government for anything. If a policeman is killed in the line of duty they are also not entitled. Why? Because the people knew the dangers of the job when they took it. The amount of compensation the family receives is pre-determined by law.

This is done for a reason. Without these limits these jobs could not exist. There are some jobs in life that involve risk, and oil rig worker is one of them.

However, it is extremely important that we warn you, as cruise ship passengers, that the Death on the High Seas Act also applies to you.

Should you be killed while cruising on a cruise ship, by some extraordinary set of circumstances, your family will be limited in the amount for which it can sue the cruise line. This is yet another reason why we recommend that you buy travel insurance whenever planning a cruise. Travel insurance will pay your family anywhere from one to twenty million dollars in the case of accidental death on a cruise ship - and this is just one of the benefits you get from travel insurance.

The other law, the Jones Act, is one that I never thought I would see in the national headlines. The Jones Act limits the right to conduct business in U.S. territorial waters to vessels that were built in the U.S., are currently flagged in the U.S. and only employ legal United States residents as crewmembers.

Cruise ships from Carnival, Royal Caribbean and other major cruise lines are not U.S.-flagged vessels and so they are limited in their access to U.S. ports. They are allowed to pick up and disembark passengers in U.S. ports, for example, but they are not allowed to transport passengers between U.S. cities. Plus they must visit a distant foreign port on every single cruise.

Many people are now calling on President Obama to suspend the Jones Act in order to allow non-U.S.-flagged ships to work in our territorial waters cleaning up the oil spill. President Bush suspended it within two weeks of the Katrina Hurricane crisis. But Obama has yet to give clearance to some 20 foreign nations who are ready to assist in the cleanup.

Apparently, the Dutch have ships with vacuum technology that could clean up the oil spill about five times faster than any U.S.-flagged technology. To be clear, they are not volunteering their efforts, they expect to be paid. And perhaps that is the problem. We wouldn't want that money going to foreigners, right?

But here is one thing Mother Jones apparently forgot. Repealing the Joines Act now would have an immediate benefit to the oil spill cleanup. But ex post facto law (the application of a new law to an instance that occurred before the law was changed) is expressly forbidden by Article One of the Constitution. Therefore, repealing the DOHSA wouldn't help the BP widows in any way.

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