Friday, September 20, 2013

Ehline Law To Lobby Congress On Behalf of International Cruise Victims

Few things make me angrier than the shenanigans the cruise lines have gotten away with for years.  Treaties and international law, and even the small print on the "passage contract", have allowed the cruise lines to avoid U.S., State and local regulations, and even federal taxes for years. The cards are always stacked against the passenger victims, and it needs to stop. For this reason, I have become a political activist, and not just a suing attorney.  And I am here to tell you, this cuts across party lines. Both democrats and republicans have been raped, thrown overboard, or otherwise injured on a cruise ship, only to be told that their contract, or a jurisdiction and venue clause on their passenger ticket, severely limited their rights to recover compensation, or where they could sue. (for example, a resident of the American State of Georgia, may be forced to sue in California, or even another country depending upon the small print!)

Enter ICV (International Cruise Victims)

One of the greatest heroes of Germany, was Feldmarschall Irwin Rommel.  We was a loyal German and excellent general. What set him apart from many battlefield commanders, is that he led from the front. "Wo Rommel ist, ist vorn" (it was understood by all that if you found Rommel, he would be at the front or the head of a column) Rommel too, was quoted as saying "Gef├╝hrt wird vorne" (which translates in German to: "a leader should lead his unit from the head position".) 

In fact, he was so famous for this, that all around the world, even on the allied side, it was said of him that he "where you find Rommel, you will find the front lines of the fight". So awesome, just motivated me right there.  In the end, Rommel took part in a military coup called "Operation Valkyrie", in an effort to assassinate and overthrow Hitler, and he sacrificed his own life for his convictions. So why mention this? Well, because when I want to take part in a legal or legislative fight, I seek out allies. 

I look for people of character who will get in the fight with me and get dirty in the trenches. In my years of research, I have only found one organization that fits the bill. At the "front" of this organization, is Kendall Carver. Tragically, Carver's daughter disappeared years ago on a cruise, and has never been heard from again. After being given the run around by the cruise industry, and having been steeled by his grief, he vowed that he would make it his life's work to fight the unfair practices of the cruise lines. Kendall discovered many disturbing facts about the cruise lines, that till then, very few individuals were even aware of. For example, cruise ships sail under a foreign flag, and are not subject to the same laws as on land in the states. They operate under maritime and admiralty law, as well as the treaties between their flag country of origin, and the departure countries.

In his quest for answers, he dug deep. He discovered that rapes aboard, while cruising, would go unreported. He learned that people are pumped with so much free flowing alcohol, that they can't even walk sometimes, let alone traverse and navigate about a swaying vessel on the high seas.  He discovered cases where employees accused of rape were promptly flown off the ships into other countries, not subject to U.S. reach. This is simply appalling.  This is the reality.

So Kendall, resolutely moved forward and, in my opinion, ushered in the era of cruise line accountability by creating the International Cruise Victims organization.  It has been largely due to his efforts that we have come as far as we have at holding the cruise industry acountable, and Kendall has been at the front of every piece of legislation dealing with U.S., and even state regulation of the cruise industry. Truly, I can say, "Wo Carver ist, ist vorn"! I am proud to say that him and I have befriended eachother over the years, and that I was able to become involved in the drafting of some proposed legislation for submission to the California Senate/assembly. Kendall is a powerhouse and driving force behind virtually every effort at justice on the high seas I have come across.

As the proud father of a beautiful young girl, I can not help but admire this man. So it was only natural, that I would do what I could to help him out with lobbying, social media, and getting the word out.  Kendall is the ICV.  But if is there was another person I would be comfortable with taking it over, it would be Jamie Barnett.

Enter Jamie Barnett

"Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don't interfere as long as the policy you've decided upon is being carried out." - Ronald Reagan.  
 
I met with Jamie Barnett last week over in Redondo Beach, California. I had a chance to learn her story. She is a head grip in the film industry, so you know right away she is tough. But she is also an aggrieved and passionate mother, whose daughter tragically passed away on a cruise ship. (Read her story here.)   This is the tragedy that would have to take place, in order for Kendall and Jamie to meet and form their life long alliance.  With so many questions that had gone unanswered, for both of them, and the failure of the cruise industry to do the right thing, this strong, compassionate woman would help be a major driving force in the face and success of ICV. She is certainly a person who can be delegated authority and whom can be left on her own to achieve the policy goals.

Here, the policy is an honorable one that seeks to protect passengers on these large floating cities. She is fighting for a cruise passenger "Bill of Rights", and I am on board with her and Kendall to make this a nationwide and worldwide policy. And they are not the only ones to suffer. ICV has a multitude of members who lost loved ones.  This is not just some isolated situation.  Allegations of harm to individuals, questionable deaths and rape, are on so widespread, that it is at an epidemic in my opinion. Having represented many of the victims of sexual assault, rape and other tragic events, I have first hand knowledge of the gamesmanship and shameful tactics used by the attorneys and staff who represent these foreign flagged ships.

Lobbying

I will be in Washington DC to help try and sway some of the more pro business politicians on behalf of ICV.  I think that they need to hear from another business owner, who supports business, that proper regulation and controls in protecting our citizens is more important than the bottom line of a foreign flagged vessel.  American and Americans first. Accordingly, the Ehline Law Firm PC cruise ship attorney organization, is behind this effort, and so are a few other key people we will discuss in later editions of this cruise ship accident law blog.

After a review of the cruise industry’s “bill of rights” for passengers, they were seen as inadequate and in reaction to this U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller a West Virginia democrat and chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation initiated new legislation. Last month the legislation by Rockefeller would provide the government with new regulatory powers over the cruise industry and establish new regulations for travel agents selling cruises.

Travel agents are responsible for approximately 70 percent of cruise ship ticket sales annually, and represented by the ASTA, who along with the cruise industry have a vested interest in the debate over the new legislation that has been introduced. This legislation could potentially change the manner that the cruise industry and travel agents, as well as their relationship with consumers.

S.1340 Inclusions

The new safety standards would be included in the Cruise Passenger Act of 2013 referred to as S. 1340 and would include:
  • Cruise lines having one year to provide the Department of Transportation (DOT) with a summary of terms for prospective passengers. Operators of the ships would be permitted six months to have these new standards posted on their websites. They will also be required to be included on promotional literature and advertising by the cruise line companies.
  • The DOT will have the authority to fine companies that violate the passenger notification standards. These fines that may be imposed can be $25,000 per day and if there are continuing violations of the passenger notification standards it can be raised to the daily cap of $50,000 per day. If the violation is by an individual that is found to be willfully violating the regulations, the DOT can impose a fine as high as $250,000 and they may also imprisoned for up to one year.
  • Under this piece of legislation S.1340 there is nothing that mentions specific standards for travel agents or any intermediaries who distribute cruise travel, whose largest percentage of their business is booking cruise travel.
  • The DOT will create an Advisory Committee overseeing Passenger Vessel Consumer Protection. This committee will make recommendations that will improve consumer protection within the cruise industry, in a similar fashion to the Advisory Committee on Aviation Consumer Protection.
  • The DOT will be required to have a hotline and website for consumer complaints. They will have the power to investigate complaints and complaints that warrant further legal action, refer them to the Attorney General or applicable federal agency.
  • The DOT will establish a director for victim support services and a cruise victim advocate. These positions will be to assist victims onboard cruise ships and to ensure that victims are aware of their rights while in international waters. These positions will ensure the victim has access to the appropriate law enforcement officers.
In the event that Rockefeller’s legislation becomes law under S.1340, the requirements for cruise lines in the United States, is that they must include in plain English on passengers contracts, advertising or promotions, will be affected. They will also be required to treat electronic confirmations involving the purchase of a cruise passage or any other form of communication in the same manner.

When there are violations of these laws by an individual or company the DOT has the ability to find them up to $50,000 per day, or by the case in the amount of up to $250,000. Although the bill is not clear, it is generally assumed that the provision of this information will be up to the travel agent or when sold through the agency channel, this will also be responsible for notifying consumers.

Concerned Industry and Committee Members

The DOT is known for fining travel agencies in the aviation consumer protective provisions for violations, for things like full-price advertising and code-share notification.  Under the new legislation the DOT would have power over cruise sales and this is causing concern for the cruise line industry, travel agencies and some committee members.

Senator Mark Begich a democrat from Alaska is co-chairman of the Senate Travel and Tourism Caucus and is a strong supporter of the industry. When S.1340 would go into effect, it is limited to cruise lines, as international industry related associations, public interest groups, federal agencies, state and local governments. The one group that is not mentioned in this legislation is travel agents. The bill could be improved by the committee by adding the travel agency industry into the bill.

Senator Rockefeller has added to more pieces of legislation that would reduce tax preferences for the cruise industry and would increase the tax burdens of cruise lines. One piece of legislation is S. 1449, which is to close a tax loophole that is currently to the benefit of the cruise industry so that they are able to avoid being required to pay U.S. income taxes. The other S. 1450 will is a bill that will require cruise lines to pay an excise tax of 5 percent on the income that is generated by using U.S. ports for their cruise departures and arrivals.

Travel Weekly weighed in on these two bills with an estimate of nearly $1 billion annually that the cruise line industry would pay in taxes. The estimate was based on the annual cruise industry reports from 2012. It is assumed that while the travel agency is not directly mentioned in the legislation, the enhanced taxation would have an effect on the travel agency industry and the travel agency industry’s trade association has said they will work to protect their interests and will stay involved in this debate. 

Even though Sen. Rockefeller has the ability to push the acceptance of S. 1340, there will be no movement on it, until mid-September and is likely to meet some resistance by the opposition and by Republicans who may feel the legislative power that will be provided to the DOT maybe too broad. This is where I come in. As an inactive U.S. Marine, and Libertarian, I am in a special position to be able to reason with hard nosed people.  This is how I roll. So wish me and the Ehline Law Firm luck, as we journey to protect wounded consumers from unaccountable foreign interests.




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