Are cruise lines responsible when a passenger gets raped?

Photo: Matthew Barra @ pexels

Photo: Matthew Barra @ pexels

If an underage girl is plied with alcohol and sexually assaulted by fellow passengers on a cruise ship, can the cruise line be held responsible?

This was the question at the center of a recent case decided by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

In December 2015, “K.T.,” whose exact age at the time is unclear but who was somewhere between 15 and 17, boarded a Royal Caribbean cruise ship with her grandparents and two sisters. The court opinion didn’t mention whether these were younger or older sisters. The girl claimed in her lawsuit against Royal Caribbean that on the first night of the cruise, a large group of men provided her with alcoholic drinks until she became highly intoxicated, then took her to a private cabin where she was gang-raped.

It doesn’t appear that the incident was reported to the police or that any criminal charges were ever brought. It was not reported to the cruise line or any of its employees at the time.

In 2017 K.T. brought a lawsuit against Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited (RCL), claiming the cruise operator was negligent for not protecting her from the sexual assault. The complaint claimed that the events occurred in a public lounge in full view of RCL staff and the ship’s surveillance cameras, but that no RCL employees stopped the adult passengers from supplying the minor with drinks or from leading her away to the cabin where she was raped. The suit also faulted RCL for not forewarning K.T. or her grandparents about the risks of sexual assault on a cruise ship.

Her lawsuit was dismissed by a lower Florida federal court that found no fault on the part of Royal Caribbean.

In considering K.T.’s appeal, the Eleventh Circuit applied federal admiralty law because the incident took place on the seas. Under maritime law, a carrier has a duty to protect its passengers from harms that are “reasonably foreseeable.”

What convinced the appellate judges to side with the plaintiff and reverse the lower court is that she alleged not that Royal Caribbean had some abstract awareness that sexual assaults and other crimes could possibly take place on its ships and that alcohol might be involved, but that it had actual knowledge that such events had in fact happened in the past on its ships, as well as actual knowledge of minors being supplied with alcohol, and thus had a duty to try to prevent these incidents from happening and to warn passengers about them.

Specifically, RCL knew of at least 20 official complaints of sexual assaults committed by passengers on its ships between 2010 and 2015.

Further, congressional reports had earlier warned of a serious problem with violent crime on cruise ships embarking and disembarking in the U.S.

“The scope of Royal Caribbean’s duty to protect its passengers is informed, if not defined, by its knowledge of the dangers they face on board. And it allegedly knew a lot,” the judges said in their opinion.

“Those allegations are enough to establish that the danger of sexual assault in general and of sexual assault on minors in particular was foreseeable, and indeed was known, to Royal Caribbean,” the court continued. “And that imposed on Royal Caribbean and its crew a duty to monitor and regulate the behavior of its passengers, especially where minors are involved.”

Cruise ships host, transport and serve many thousands of passengers at a time. Is it the responsibility of a cruise line to babysit its passengers, or is this just a cash grab against a deep-pocketed defendant? And where were these grandparents while all this was going on? If they weren’t the girl’s legal guardians, they certainly were her guardians on the cruise ship, in the absence of her parents. Had they retired to their cabin and left the girl unsupervised in the bar area? Did she sneak out of her cabin after they thought she had gone to bed? Alas, these are the things that court opinions never tell you, and personally I find it maddening as all get-out. But it seems to me like this girl was failed by all the people who should have been protecting her.

It’s important to point out that the appellate court’s decision only means the plaintiff can move forward with her lawsuit against Royal Caribbean. It’s still up to a jury or other fact-finder to determine if there was actual negligence on the part of the cruise line and if they must pay any damages to the plaintiff. The Eleventh Circuit’s ruling is not a finding of fault against RCL. It means that the plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to have a case at all.

The case is K.T. v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. (No. 17-14237, 11th Cir., 2019)

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