Carnival Cruise Ship Drowning Draws Attention to a Distressing Trend

The third on-board drowning of a young child in eleven months raises important questions about cruise ships swimming pool safety.

Disturbingly, the fatal drowning of a young child aboard a Carnival vessel last week was the third such incident to occur aboard a commercial cruise ship in the past year. Though few details have been released, sources report that on February 3rd, two children, a four-year-old and a six-year-old, were unresponsive by the time they were pulled from an on-deck swimming pool. The older child was revived and airlifted to shore; the four-year-old was pronounced dead aboard the ship.

Aside from offering its sympathy for the child’s family on its public Facebook page, Carnival has yet to release further information about the accident. Details aside, however, it seems clear that something is gravely wrong with an industry standard that has allowed three young children to drown in the past eleven months.

This tragedy brings to the forefront at least two important legal issues. The first is the question of potential liability. As a general rule, cruise companies do not employ life guards to monitor their on-board swimming pools; passengers of all ages swim at their own risk. This is a practical decision on the cruise lines’ part: not only does it spare them the expense of additional crew salaries—it also means that the company cannot be liable for any swimmer injuries or deaths.

It is an unfortunate reality that the swimming area and surrounding deck of a cruise ship can be chaotic; between the noisy crowd, drinks being sold, and other unfamiliar stimuli, parents could have a particularly difficult time keeping an eye on their swimming children.

It remains unknown whether the children’s parents were present or sufficiently attentive at the time of the drowning. Regardless, however, many believe that the cruise lines’ current policies surrounding their swimming pools are inadequate. If the cruise lines truly put their passengers’ safety above all else—as they so frequently claim—it seems more than reasonable that they should begin employing professional lifeguards.

The second issue that may have bearing on this incident pertains to the legal avenues that may be available to the deceased child’s family. Because the drowning occurred on the “high seas” (over twelve nautical miles from the nearest shore), any compensation sought by the bereaved parents may be drastically limited by the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA).

Criticized by many as both outdated and unjust, DOHSA only allows survivors to seek compensation for financial damages—that is, future wages or other quantifiable services lost as a result of the death. In the case of a four-year-old, this would almost certainly mean nothing more than the costs of the funeral. If applied, DOHSA would strip the family of their rights to any recompense for their long-term emotional suffering.

Though the full story is still unfolding, this incident draws attention to multiple shortcomings in cruise law and policy that fail to adequately protect even the most vulnerable passengers.

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