Posted Aug 11, 2006 11:42 pm CDT
With trails of blood and tales of drinking and jealousy, the disappearance of young honeymooner George A. Smith IV last summer while cruising between Greece and Turkey on the Royal Caribbean ship Brilliance of the Seas was tailor-made for the maws of all-news channels and TV newsmagazines. The drama extended to Washington, D.C., where House committee hearings were convened to investigate passenger security on cruise ships.
With the national spotlight trained on both the tragedy and the cruise industry, another group also has been receiving attention lately: the Miami-based lawyers who specialize in cruise ship litigation.
At first blush, it would seem as if this practice area would be ripe for expansion. The cruise industry is the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry, with an increase in cruise-goers of more than 2,100 percent since 1970—from an estimate of 500,000 then to an anticipated high near 12 million this year, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, the official trade group that includes travel agents.
Even if the rate of incidents that could result in litigation remains the same, those numbers would grow exponentially, too—meaning more business for lawyers.
Yet the lawyers say several significant barriers have kept their bar small, and they don’t see that changing. Most significant, they say, is the area’s level of difficulty. Rather than involving a single category of cases, it’s a mix involving contracts, employment, personal injury, medical malpractice and, in effect, criminal law. All are folded into the quirky wrinkles of admiralty law.
“It’s not a field where many lawyers go moonlighting with the odd case here or there,” says Martin Davies, co-director of the Maritime Law Center at Tulane University Law School in New Orleans. “Most won’t dabble in it because you can get something wrong, and in litigation the result can be horrible.”
One example: Nearly all passenger tickets give notice in small print that passengers have one year to file claims and must do so in Florida, where most major cruise lines have their headquarters.
Regardless, passengers from around the country often go to hometown lawyers to handle claims for injuries or other matters. Sometimes those lawyers unwittingly file late and, figuring they can do so because the cruise lines advertise there, in their home jurisdiction.
“That happens all the time,” says David J. Horr, a prominent cruise line defense lawyer in Miami. “And if they file at the expiration date, the case is dismissed after that one-year limit; there’s no mechanism for transferring between states.”
Then there’s the location issue: it’s Florida or bust for these lawyers. Most major cruise line ships are registered in Panama, Liberia or the Bahamas—so-called flags of convenience—but their principal place of business is Miami. Additionally, the bulk of the $25 billion U.S. cruise industry is centered in the state.
As a result, the number of lawyers handling claims for passengers and crew is surprisingly small. In Miami, where most are located, there are roughly 15, mostly practicing in clusters of three or so. Those in the specialty area say the defense bar numbers 40 to 50, with the 17-lawyer Maltzman Foreman firm as the biggest.
Many members of Miami’s cruise line bar, including Brett Rivkind, who represents Smith’s family, and James M. Walker, who represents Smith’s wife, came out of the venerable firm Fowler White Boggs Banker—a 230-lawyer, full-service firm with a presence in cruise line personal injury defense.
Within the bar, lawyers have moved around—various spinoffs have broken up and re-formed a number of times in the past 15 or so years, says Jonathan B. Aronson, who defends cruise lines—but the group itself has remained relatively constant.
“We all encounter the same lawyers, case after case,” says Horr. “We’re a throwback to the days when you practiced law with the idea that ‘I’m going to be dealing with this person again.’ ”