THE DISABLED Carnival Triumph, carrying about 3,200 passengers and another 1,000 crew, was a visual slight to the carefully cultivated image of cruise vacations. There were no happy faces, only nautical imprisonment for five days without power. The stories of clogged toilets, scarce food, and potential viral outbreaks were captivating exactly because the doomed boat was close enough to shore to be photographed from helicopters but too far out to be rescued.
But this was not a disaster, however much it reached the “yuck” threshold. The questions about Carnival’s conduct and why passengers were not rescued by passing boats are the wrong ones. The lesson of the Triumph episode isn’t about the inconvenienced passengers. It is about the size of the boats, which are so large that evacuation becomes only a last resort. They are, literally, too big to bail.
No one died on the ship. By that grim standard, the Triumph incident was a triumph. Last year, the Costa Concordia, owned by a subsidiary of Carnival, hit ground off the coast of Italy. The confused and negligent evacuation resulted in 32 deaths.
Public demands to get the passengers off Triumph were misguided. It would have been the height of panic to take 4,000 people off a boat that was disabled, but not sinking, and onto rescue ships. It may have taken days, and fatalities might have occurred. Several ailing vacationers did get taken off by lifeboats, but even that was a treacherous gamble. Evacuation on a boat is a plan of last resort that’s only recommended when the ship is sinking.
The real disaster is that passengers are unlikely to have much recourse against Carnival. Weak laws govern the seas, making individual causes of action difficult to win and, even worse, collective actions almost impossible to bring. The entire system assumes that any complaint against a company will be brought because of a single instance of poisoning or tripping in the Lido lounge or, in extreme cases, falling into the sea. It does not really take into account the possibility that the massive ship would become disabled and that thousands of people would have no possible exit.
When passengers sign a cruise contract, somewhere in that multi-page document they absolve the company of most liability. Written in legal jargon, it essentially says “we own you.”
But the Triumph incident shows that passengers need to be worried about more than individual claims. The travelers on the Triumph will get reimbursements, but there’s not likely to be the kind of financial penalties that could alter the behavior of ship owners.
The industry, meanwhile, keeps building bigger boats, raising the stakes of any mishap. In just a decade, the average cruise ship doubled its passenger capacity. Huge and unwieldy ships, capable of carrying up to 8,000 passengers, are in the pipeline. The Panama Canal is at the end of a multi-year expansion in anticipation of these bigger boats.
Congressional and regulatory overseers need to devise a new legal regime that focuses on the boats rather than the passengers: Penalties should be high enough so that passengers get more than a promised free trip in the future, and the industry is forced to take greater precautions against a breakdown. (The Carnival Triumph had experienced previous mechanical troubles that weren’t properly addressed.)
In litigation, cruise passengers are treated like car drivers, as though cases will require the balancing of that individual’s negligence against that of the cruise line. (That person who fell in the Lido lounge may have had too much to drink.) But just as our laws do not absolve the airline industry for a plane accident, the cruise industry shouldn’t escape unscathed from an incident like this one. All it takes is one glitch to put thousands of lives at risk. That was true for the Carnival Triumph, in the same way it was true for Boeing’s fleet of Dreamliner 787s. But after a series of mishaps, the planes were all grounded.
The law is way behind the technology that enables these boats to float. Changes in the way ships are built suggest that, in the future, thousands of people will again be stranded on a Hobbesian paradise. The journey of the Triumph was not a tragedy, it was not even a disaster. But it was a warning.