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Sexual Assault On Cruise Ships

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Sexual Assault On Cruise Ships

The cruise ship industry grew significantly in recent years before the pandemic hit. People and families go on cruises to unwind, relax, and enjoy pre-planned events and staff catering to them while on vacation.

Cruise ship companies have an obligation to protect their passengers while on board, but many fall short of carrying out their duty to their passengers by failing to vet cruise ship employees thoroughly. Allegations of sexual assault and rape by cruise ship employees and staff members are rampant, with these individuals primarily preying on vulnerable, underage passengers. Although these assaults are not occasional incidents, cruise ship operators often fail to warn passengers about these dangers that are common to many cruise liners. 

Legal retribution and recompense for cruise ship sexual abuse, assault, or rape can get sticky due to maritime laws and jurisdictional issues. Still, these cruise lines have a strict duty of care to provide a safe trip for passengers, and when they fail to do so, they may be liable for resulting damages and harm.

How common is sexual assault on a cruise?

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According to the US Department of Transportation (DOT) data, sexual assault is the most prevalent alleged crime reported on cruise ships. In 2018, cruise lines reported 82 alleged sexual assaults to the DOT. Since 2016, passengers reported at least 220 incidents of alleged cruise ship sexual abuse. 

The ship with the most reported incidents of sexual abuse is major cruise liner Carnival Cruise Lines, responsible for at least 20 of the 35 reported cruise ship sexual abuse crimes in the third quarter of 2019. Carnival consistently reports the most amount of allegations since 2016. Sadly, these numbers are likely much lower than the actual number of incidents occurring on cruise ships.

Carnival spokesperson Vance Gulliksen attempted to attribute the higher number to the significant percentage of US passengers who travel and vacation on Carnival cruises, requiring the cruise line to report incidents each time the vessel leaves and returns to the United States. Contrarily, other governments do not have the same reporting requirements, and many ships sail from Europe or other non-US ports, diminishing the number of reported incidents. 

Many gaps exist in federal and international laws that govern cruise ship operations, allowing many cruise liners to hide the total number of sexual assaults happening on their vessels. 

If you experienced sexual assault on a cruise ship, you should consult with a cruise ship sexual abuse attorney to learn about your legal rights and available recourse.

Recent Cases of Cruise Ship Sexual Assault

Cruise liners often try to cover up cases of sexual assault that occur on their cruise ships, but the percent increase from 2018 to 2019 by 67% shows that sex crimes on cruises are a serious matter. Herman Law advocates cruise ship passengers’ rights and is a voice for sexual assault survivors.

Cruise ship sex abuse is a common trend on every type of cruise ship. Examples reported by the Miami New Times in 2019 include:

  • In December 2015, a teenager reported that a group of men got her drunk, lured her into a cabin, and raped her during a seven-day Royal Caribbean cruise.
  • The same year, on a Norwegian Cruise Line, a cruise ship employee allegedly sexually assaulted an 11-year-old. That employee supposedly used a master key to enter the girl’s room.
  • In July 2016, a fitness instructor allegedly sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl on a Carnival ship.
  • In 2014, a Holland America Line cruise ship worker admitted to raping a 31-year-old American woman and trying to throw her overboard from her stateroom balcony. The perpetrator was a 28-year-old Indonesian citizen, and he also admitted to using his master key to enter the room and then hide on the balcony until the woman returned.

Horrific stories like these are widespread in the cruise ship industry. Many sexual assaults and rapes go unreported, and cruise liners often attempt to silence victims, impede investigations, and help cover up sex crimes, allowing perpetrators to go free.

How Can You Stay Safe on a Cruise Ship?

Defining sexual assault and rape

The Office on Women’s Health defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual activity or contact that you do not consent to. Sexual assault can happen through physical force or threats of force or if the attacker gave the victim drugs or alcohol as part of the assault. Sexual assault includes rape and sexual coercion. In the United States, one in three women has experienced some type of sexual violence. If you have been sexually assaulted, it is not your fault, regardless of the circumstances.”

Sexual assault is also called sexual violence or abuse. Each state defines sexual assault and other sexual violence crimes differently, though they all define it using a similar iteration of the definition above. Examples of sexual assault include:

  • Rape
  • Attempted rape
  • Sexual contact with a child
  • Sexual coercion
  • Fondling or other unwanted touching (regardless of whether you’re wearing clothes)
  • Any type of contact with someone who cannot consent (e.g., underage people, people with an intellectual disability, someone heavily under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or someone who is sleeping and unable to respond

Sexual assault can also include non-contact assault, including:

  • “Flashing”
  • Forcing you to look at pornographic images
  • Voyeurism (i.e., peeping, watching private acts without consent)
  • Sexual harassment or threats
  • Sending someone unwanted texts

A common form of sexual assault on cruise ships is rape. The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) defines rape as, “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

Sex crimes can cause serious physical and emotional injuries to victims.

What are the long-term effects of sexual assault and rape?

Sexual assault can have physical, mental, and long-term emotional effects on survivors. Researchers note that the most common mental effects for sexual assault and rape survivors include:

  • Depression: Many sexual assault survivors say they feel prolonged sadness, a sense of hopelessness, inexplicable crying, weight problems, loss of energy, and loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Sexual assault survivors often cite flashbacks, severe anxiety, nightmares, and uncontrollable thoughts.
  • Anxiety: Anxiety often occurs alongside depression and PTSD. Many survivors say they continuously feel anxious after the incident.
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts: Suicidal thoughts can occur along with depression. Sexual assault victims often feel suicidal after the sex crime occurs.
  • Dissociation: Survivors often state they have difficulty focusing on work or schoolwork or have trouble feeling present in everyday activities and situations.

Common emotional long-term effects can include:

  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Feeling angry or ashamed
  • Shock
  • Loss of control
  • Disorientation
  • Numbness
  • Helplessness
  • Fear
  • Self-blame
  • Guilt
  • Embarrassment
  • Isolation or loneliness
  • Denial
  • Sense of vulnerability

Long-term physical effects experienced after a sexual assault or rape include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Involuntary shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle tension
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Sexual dysfunction

Other common reactions include:

  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Self-injury or self-harming behavior
  • Transient psychotic episodes
  • Confusion about sexuality
  • Relationship problems
  • Other mental disorders, such as borderline personality disorder or dissociative identity disorder
  • Parenting problems

If a cruise ship employee abused you while on a cruise ship, you may experience any of these long-term effects. You must understand that the sexual assault was not your fault, and you do have legal rights to potentially receive compensation to help you with your recovery. No one can take away the pain you experienced from the horrifying assault, but you do not have to go through the process of seeking compensation to help pay for therapy and other healing measures alone.

Why do sexual assault and rape occur on cruise ships?

A significant reason why rape and sexual assaults happen on cruise ships is passengers are more vulnerable on these closed ships, and perpetrators often take advantage of having employee-level access to passenger quarters.

Additionally, cruise ships often fail to provide adequate security measures for passengers while onboard. The cruise ship’s security personnel are often cruise ship crew members, not members of a police force or employees of a separate, independent company. This insider arrangement poses a dilemma for adequate accountability, who oversees security training, and the implementation of certain investigative procedures in the event of criminal activity on the boat. The fact that cruise ships hire their own personnel to carry out security requirements and investigative protocols allows increased incidents of abuse to happen and subsequently get covered up.

Further, many cruise ships offer options for alcohol consumption, which significantly increases the chances of negligent, reckless, or criminal behavior occurring, including rape and sexual assault. A cruise ship staff member may intentionally serve a passenger too much alcohol to later target and sexually assault them.

The entire cruise ship environment allows for a predator to prey on innocent, vulnerable victims. At the center of it all are the many failures by the cruise ship lines themselves. These major corporations fail to thoroughly vet their employees, including running extensive background checks to ensure they don’t have questionable or criminal histories. The cruise liners also fail to provide adequate employee training on 1) preventing sexual assault and rape on cruise ships and 2) reporting sexual assault and rape if suspected or happening on a trip.

Without strict policies and procedures in place and necessary enforcement, sexual predators can easily get away with the crimes they commit. Cruise ship companies fail to emphasize the ramifications of such actions and fail to implement easy and consistent processes for employee-reported abuse. Even with some employees and passengers reporting sexual assault, many corporations have covered up the crime to save their reputations.

Why do cruise companies cover up sexual assault and rape?

Cruise ship companies have been evading United States’ laws, specifically the reporting requirements, for decades now by establishing their businesses in foreign countries and registering their vessels in those countries, like the Bahamas. This practice allows cruise ship companies to cover up hundreds, if not thousands, of crimes that occur on their ships each year to avoid liability. Cruise liners care more about their reputations as “safe ships” to help draw in more passengers and profits than the actual safety of their paying guests.

When asked in interviews or by the authorities, cruise line owners and operators always emphasize that cruise ship sexual assaults and rapes are “rare,” when that’s not the case.

In 2016, Herman Law successfully argued in court in Doe v. Royal Caribbean Cruises that when a cruise ship employee commits a criminal sexual act, the court must rely on federal civil liability to impute responsibility to the cruise line in addition to the perpetrator. This victory means that a cruise line is automatically liable under federal and statutory law for an employee’s crime of sexual assault. Legal precedent now sets the minimum amount of damages at $150,000 per incident. This crucial first step helps to hold cruise ship companies accountable for sexual assaults occurring in the past, present, and future on their ships.

Who has jurisdiction over rape and sexual assault cases on cruise ships?

The answer to who has jurisdiction over sexual assault and rape cases on cruise ships is difficult to determine since the crimes usually happen outside of United States’ territories or on cruise ships not leaving from or returning to the US. The FBI only has jurisdiction over the case if cruise ship sexual assault victims can meet the following factors:

  • The victim or the perpetrator of the sexual assault is a United States national; and
  • The ship departs from or to a United States port.

In situations where a sex crime survivor cannot meet these factors, it’s more challenging to determine which agency or country has jurisdiction. In those cases, authorities use the following factors to determine which agency and government have jurisdiction over the criminal matter:

  • The location of the ship
  • The nationality of the perpetrator
  • The nationality of the victim
  • Which company owns the vessel
  • The point of departure
  • The point of return
  • The country the ship is incorporated in (or “flagged”)

The laws regarding who can decide a cruise ship sexual assault case can get complicated, but a cruise ship sexual assault law firm can help you navigate these complex legal issues by providing you with advice specific to your case to ensure you can seek justice.

Federal Law and Legislation Regarding Cruise Ship Sexual Assault

Congress passed the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 (CVSSA) to address the cruise ships’ prominent safety issues. The CVSSA also includes guidance on preventing sexual violence and determining how victims can respond to sexual assaults. The Act ensures that passengers have access to required resources to seek and receive medical attention. Additionally, cruise liners must allow victims to have and make possible a sexual assault forensic exam on board. The Act also provides guidance to ensure passengers can make a report if sexual violence occurs.

Some of the additional rights that passengers have under the CVSSA include:

  • The right to receive a security guide or a written summary describing who you can talk to and where to go if a crime occurs. These guidelines must also include the criminal legal procedures for offenses committed in any of the international waters that the ship might travel through while on the trip. The guidebook must also include a list of United States embassy and consulate locations in international countries to which the cruise ship plans to travel.
  • As mentioned, all passengers have the right to a sexual assault forensic exam on board. All cruise ships must have the required equipment and materials to be able to conduct these medical exams.
  • The CVSSA lays out a passenger’s right to confidentiality if you receive these services, meaning if you provide any information to medical personnel, counselors, or other support staff, this information must remain confidential.

Though these laws are in place, enforcement is still an issue related to reporting and responding to sexual assault claims. Still, these laws support the notion that all passengers have the right to feel safe and protected while on cruise ship vessels.

Cruise ship companies are typically subject to strict liability laws. If a sexual assault involves a crew member or cruise ship employee, then the cruise ship owner is strictly liable for the sexual assault, even if they were not negligent or themselves at fault. If a cruise ship employee sexually abused you or a loved one, then the cruise liner will also likely be found liable for the abuse, making the process of receiving compensation for your harm a bit easier.


There are many ways you can report the sexual assault both on the cruise ship and once you’re off the vessel. If you’re at sea, you should seek immediate medical attention to treat any possible injuries and conduct an exam, which can be helpful evidence if you want to press charges or file a legal claim. Use the guidebook we discussed above to find the needed medical facilities. If you’re onshore, find the nearest emergency room, clinic, or hospital.

Try to avoid showering, cleaning the area where the assault occurred, or changing your clothes before completing a sexual assault forensic exam. The medical staff will collect the DNA evidence that can be useful to prosecute your attacker.

If you’re not within the US or its off-shore territories, you can find help at the nearest United States Embassy or Consulate in the country you’re visiting. You can reach a consular officer for emergency assistance 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These officers can also connect you with multiple resources for help, no matter where you are.

You may be able to report the crime to the FBI or other law enforcement. If the offense occurs when you’re on board, contact the United States Coast Guard or the FBI regarding the crime, and they can provide you advice on how best to proceed. You can reach the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. by calling (202) 324-3000.

Another government agency you can report the crime to is the US Department of Transportation (DOT). Survivors can file an incident report of any criminal activity to the DOT, and you can also review past cruise line incident reports online.

Who will investigate and prosecute a sexual assault on a cruise ship?

The government and entity that will investigate and prosecute a sexual assault on a cruise ship will depend on who you report the sexual assault to and all other factors listed above.

No matter where the assault happened or who you report it to, know that you are not alone in seeking justice, and you may be entitled to compensation. It’s crucial to speak to a cruise ship sex abuse attorney to understand your legal rights and whether you can pursue a claim in the United States’ court systems.

Civil Claims vs. Criminal Charges

In a civil lawsuit, you can bring a claim against the perpetrator and the cruise ship line. A cruise ship sexual abuse lawyer can help you establish and argue your claim and ensure you receive the maximum compensation for your damages.

In a criminal case, the government or state will bring charges against the perpetrator to punish them for their criminal wrongdoing. Punishments or sentencing if convicted can include jail time, fines, and any other retribution the judge deems appropriate.

How can you stay safe on a cruise ship?

There are multiple steps you can take to stay safe on a cruise ship, including:

  • Know the ship’s safety protocols before boarding: Cruise ships are required to provide passengers with guidelines that outline the measures the cruise ship must take to protect passengers. Take the time to read those documents. 
  • Be aware of your surroundings: Always be conscious of who is around you no matter where you are on the ship. Look for escape routes and places to exit in case of an emergency.
  • Do not invite anyone to your cabin that you do not know.
  • Do not leave your drink unattended.
  • Know your drinking limits: Do not drink more than you can handle, causing you to become unaware of your surroundings, unconscious, or incapable of protecting yourself. Drinking in excess can significantly decrease the possibility of you being able to escape from a dangerous situation.
  • Avoid walking alone in isolated areas.
  • Always travel with at least one other person.

There’s no guarantee for all passenger safety, but these steps can help you stay as safe as possible on cruise ships. It’s up to the cruise ship companies to ensure that their employees are not predators, which is why strict liability laws apply in these types of cases.

What do I do if I was sexually assaulted or raped on a cruise by a cruise ship employee?

Sexual assault and rape are devastating realities that, unfortunately, can happen. They’re especially petrifying when they happen to you in a foreign country when you’re traveling or stuck on a vessel far away from home. The first thing you should do is seek medical attention. Your health and safety are most important.

Next, report the abuse to the relevant authorities and maintain records of the forensic exam if you had one done. Once you’ve reported the abuse to cruise ship security and any other agency that can help you, you should contact a cruise ship sexual assault law firm to help you understand your legal rights.

Herman Law is a law firm of compassionate attorneys dedicated to being the voice for sexual assault and rape survivors. You do not have to go through the complicated and heavy process of seeking justice alone. If a cruise ship employee sexually assaulted you or a loved one, contact us now for a free consultation to determine how we can potentially help you and get you the compensation you need and deserve to contribute to your continued healing.

If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, we want to help. Contact us confidentially today.