Tragedy at Sea: Princess Cruise Line Ignores Calls for Rescue, Gets Hit with Lawsuits in State and Federal Court

Fundamental U.S. Maritime law imposes a duty to rescue at sea. In Caminiti v. Tomlinson Fleet Corp., 1981 A.M.C. 201 (E.D. Ohio), two men went overboard from their vessel and two passing commercial ships didn’t stop, despite seeing the passengers struggling in the water. The men drowned and the shipping companies denied that a duty to rescue the men existed. The court disagreed, finding that “the law of the sea has always demanded a higher degree of care, vigilance and diligence,” and that the duty to rescue “strangers in peril” exists even if the ships were not the cause of the peril.

On February 24, 2012, a commercial fishing boat crewed by three young, Panamanian men was heading home to Rio Hato, Panama after a fishing excursion. The engine on the small vessel failed and was adrift without power for nearly 15 days before it was spotted by three passengers aboard the Star Princess. The cruise ship passengers allegedly spotted the distressed vessel through a pair of high-powered binoculars and immediately alerted the ship’s crewmembers that the fishermen were signaling for help, waving their arms and a red piece of cloth tied to a pole. Unfortunately, the Star Princess continued on its course and failed to effectuate a rescue.

The fishing boat was later discovered by the Ecuadorean Coast Guard on March 24th near the Galapagos Islands, with only one survivor onboard, 18-year-old Adrian Vasquez. Oropeces Betancourt, 24, died of dehydration on March 11 and Fernando Osorio, 16, died four days later from dehydration, sunburn and heat stroke.

Princess claimed that the passengers’ sighting of the fishermen was never communicated to the bridge.

“Because of what we suspect was a case of unfortunate miscommunication, regretfully the captain of Star Princess was never notified of the passengers’ concern,” it said in a statement.

“This is an upsetting and emotional issue for us all, as no employee onboard a Princess ship would purposefully ignore someone in distress,” the statement added. “It is our ethical and maritime responsibility to provide assistance to any vessel in need, and it is not an uncommon occurrence for our ships to be involved in a rescue at sea.” Read more about Princess’ account of the tragedy.

Princess Cruises, for it’s failure to rescue the three, distressed Panamanian fishermen, has been hit with two lawsuits. The first suit, a negligence action filed by the sole survivor of the incident, accuses Princess of “outrageous conduct” and “Callous disregard for human life” when it ignored rescue signals by the three men, resulting in the otherwise avoidable death of the other two fishermen. The second suit alleges that Princess breached its duty to rescue under general maritime law by ignoring pleas for help by the stranded anglers.

There are three international conventions that impose a duty on ships to rescue at sea and all three effectively require that a captain of a vessel, if notified, must proceed to the assistance of any persons in distress.

The first is the International Maritime Organizations (IMO) regulations found in the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS).
The second is the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCOLOS).
The third is the International Convention of Salvage (1989) (“Salvage Convention”). Read more about Ethical and Legal Implications of failure to rescue at sea.