Cruise lines make their money offering vacationers more of everything: Sunshine, food and drink, excitement.
But when tragedy strikes — when a passenger is injured, or dies, or simply disappears — survivors say the cruise lines can be downright stingy: Reluctant to accept responsibility, tight even with information about what happened.
Long-established U.S. Maritime law limits the lines' financial liability, in the event of the death of a passenger, to lost income, so there is often no compensation for the loss of the very young or the retired beyond funeral expenses, legal experts say.
The death of Carol Martin Olson stirred an unwelcome sense of déjà vu among those who have lost loved ones about cruise ships.
The 71-year-old Reisterstown woman, a passenger aboard the Carnival Pride, died April 30 while on a snorkeling tour off Freeport in the Bahamas. Bahamian authorities have ruled the death an accidental drowning.
"My heart goes out to [Olson's] family," said Lynnette Hudson, 46, of Bear, Del, whose father died of smoke inhalation when his cruise ship caught fire off Jamaica in 2006.
"The family is going to be dealing with a brick wall, and the cruise industry is going to tell them her life had no value. They will not take responsibility for the things they should be accountable for," Hudson said.
Lanie Fagan, a spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association, said passenger safety is the industry's "number one priority," and that cruise lines are obligated to exercise "reasonable care in the sale of shore excursions." The companies also share a "zero-tolerance policy when it comes to crime."
But advocates for cruise passengers say few people who board the big liners for carefree vacations are aware of just how much risk they bear.
The issue is increasingly significant for Marylanders as Baltimore grows as a cruise hub. Five lines now sail from the Locust Point Cruise Terminal. More than 165,000 passengers left port in 2009 on 81 cruises. The commerce pumped an estimated $152 million into the local economy and sustained 1,550 jobs, according to the Maryland Port Administration.
Olson and her husband, Harry A. Olson, left Baltimore on April 25 aboard the Carnival Pride, along with several members of their church, Trinity Lutheran in Reisterstown. On April 30th, with the ship in Freeport on Grand Bahama Island, they joined a snorkeling tour they had booked through Carnival.
The tour was operated by a third-party contractor that Carnival officials say they have dealt with for 10 years.
Other snorkelers said the tour was advertised as requiring "moderate exercise." But they told The Baltimore Sun that they were taken to a reef where waves and strong currents quickly exhausted even relatively young, strong swimmers, pulling them away from the boat.
"I consider myself a pretty strong swimmer," said Lyn Halavats, 46, of Troy, Mo. She said she and her husband were among the first off the boat. "I wanted to get in as much snorkeling as I could."
But in just 10 or 15 minutes, she said, "I was pretty far from the boat, and I kind of started to panic. … I started to swim pretty hard, but I wasn't getting anywhere."
With considerable effort, she managed to get back near the boat, where she saw Olson, who still had a snorkel in her mouth, but appeared unconscious as passengers and crew struggled to get her onto the boat.
Passengers interviewed by The Baltimore Sun said crew members seemed unprepared, or unwilling to perform CPR, leaving passengers to attempt it. The boat was not equipped with ship-to-shore radio, the passengers said, and it took 90 minutes or more to get Olson to medical help in Freeport, where she was pronounced dead.
Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen contradicted the passengers' accounts. He said Friday that the tour boat crew had both radio and cell phones. They alerted their office, which brought an ambulance to the dock. Four of the five crewmen were CPR-trained, he said, but "since CPR was being administered properly by other guests, the captain allowed that process to continue."
Gulliksen said the weather at the time was "good," and the tour was on a side of the island sheltered from the wind. He said that while Carnival provides "general" guidelines, "the guest also must evaluate their own fitness level" in deciding on a tour. Refunds are available to those who back out, he said.
Jennifer de la Cruz, also with Carnival, expressed "heartfelt condolences" to Olson's family. Mr. Olson and his son, David B. Olson, were assisted in the Bahamas by a Carnival "Care Team."
Fagan, the industry spokeswoman said, cruise lines have a responsibility to "exercise reasonable care in the sale of shore excursions," and "a legal duty not to sell excursions they believe to be unsafe." Carnival has suspended its contract with the tour provider.
But Jim Walker, a Florida attorney who specializes in cruise line litigation, said passengers are largely on their own when they take shore tours with third parties under contract to the cruise lines.
When they market the tours, the lines "do business with passengers on the promise that these [tours] have been vetted, and investigated, and that they have better safety records" than tours passengers might find on their own, Walker said. And, the lines get a cut of the fees passengers pay for the tours.
The cruise companies are legally obligated to warn passengers of any dangers associated with the tour. And they are required to scrutinize the tour operators, inspect their facilities, safety protocols and operations.
So, "as long as they do that basic investigation, they're going to say they fully complied with the law," Walker said. That clears the cruise line.
Even if the tour company is then negligent, he said, "that does not create negligence on behalf of the cruise line." And when the tour operators are not U.S. companies, the families of passengers who are killed or injured will have a difficult time suing them directly.
Similar problems can arise with medical issues involving shipboard doctors, who Walker said are typically are not U.S.-trained or licensed.
"The cruise lines are not liable for the negligence of the ship's doctors," he said. "They are independent contractors."
Kendall Carver is chairman of International Cruise Victims, which advocates for the families of people who are victims of crimes or accidents on cruise lines. When tragedy strikes, he said, the cruise companies typically provide little information or compensation to passengers' families.
Carver said he lost his 40-year-old daughter, Merrian, when she disappeared on an Alaska cruise in 2004. She was never found.
"We hired a private investigator, and two law firms," he said. "All we wanted to do was talk to the steward, and that took court action in Massachusetts and Florida."
They eventually learned Merrian had been reported missing daily by the steward. "Cover-up was standard operating procedure," Carver said.
Collecting compensation for family members who are lost on board is also problematic.
Passenger or crew deaths that occur beyond U.S. territorial waters fall under the Death on the High Seas Act, which limits damages strictly to financial losses.
"No pre-death pain and suffering, no grief, bereavement, sadness of the husband or her family," Walker said. "The total damages that can be awarded are strictly financial losses."
When victims in these cases are children, or retired and no longer earning money, all that can be recovered are funeral and burial expenses. And that's normally too little to warrant the costs of the lawsuit, Walker said. "It's not a case anyone would pursue."
Lynnette Hudson, whose father died in the ship fire off Jamaica, said her family got little assistance from the cruise line, and they had to read the maritime accident report to learn how he died.
When they brought a wrongful death suit, they learned that under the Death on the High Seas Act, her father's life, because he was 72 and retired, had no monetary value. "They didn't offer anything to my family. Not even a sympathy card," she said.
Some crime-related problems would be addressed by legislation now pending before Congress, Walker said. The Cruise Safety and Security Act has already passed the House. A Senate vote is expected soon.
For the first time, Walker said, cruise lines sailing in or out of U.S. ports would be required to report all crimes to the FBI and the Coast Guard. Ships would also be required to carry rape kits and anti-retroviral medicines to protect rape victims from HIV infections.
And the cruise companies would have to make public all shipboard crimes. "The public will know the crimes that occur and see which ships have the greatest problems," Walker said.
Fagan, the industry spokeswoman, said the cruise lines already are required by law to report serious crimes to U.S. authorities.
"Under the proposed legislation, the procedures for reporting allegations of crimes will be clarified and further codified, goals the cruise industry fully supports," she said.
But Walker said the existing requirement applies only to crimes that occur in U.S. waters.
"The cruise industry has always taken the position … that you can't touch us unless we are in U.S. waters," he said. "If there was a law, then why didn't they report the suspicious disappearance of Merrian Carver? And why weren't they fined when it was revealed that they covered it up?"
Walker said the new legislation, if passed, will be "a major improvement on issues of crime," he said, but it does not address liability issues related to the Death on the High Seas Act, or third-party contractors, such as tour operators and shipboard doctors.
"That's our next step," Carver said.
Sun reporter Michelle Deal-Zimmerman contributed to this article.