Weekly Column

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In his work titled “The Ethics of Belief”, William Clifford presented a fictional story of a shipowner, who needed to sell tickets for a voyage across the Atlantic. The shipowner knew his vessel was weathered and that damages in some areas raised cause for concern. But the repairs to the ship would be costly and time-consuming, so the shipowner pushed these concerns aside and claimed his vessel worthy of a safe voyage overseas.

Clifford correctly argues that the shipowner is responsible for his neglect and, though his work dates back to the 19th century, its meaning still resonates today. Those who knowingly prioritize profits over consumer safety should be held accountable.

On April 10, 2016, Larry and Christy Hammer, two retirees from Omaha, Nebraska, embarked on a Peruvian river cruise. They were excited for an adventure together and to see a unique region of the world. On the very first night of the cruise, however, the Hammers tragically lost their lives because of an electrical fire in their cabin. 

At the time, the cruise charter company, International Expeditions, advertised that the 31-passenger riverboat was “custom-designed” and claimed to meet international safety standards. The president of International Expeditions declared the riverboat “safe for travel” a mere three days after the Hammers’ death, without knowing the cause of the fire that took their lives.

What’s more, the Peruvian Navy’s report in October 2016 found numerous safety violations and negligence. The Hammers’ cabin did not contain a working fire alarm and the power strip that was provided by the ship caused the fire. Over 20 minutes had passed before the crew, without adequate emergency training or fire equipment, entered the Hammers’ cabin.

The Hammers’ daughters, Jill Hammer Malott and Kelly Hammer Lankford, have been searching for accountability since that tragic day. In doing so, they have repeatedly encountered the Death on the High Seas Act. This 99-year-old law, known as DOHSA, was originally written to provide for the widows and dependents of seamen who died while working on ships in foreign waters. This gave widows the opportunity to seek financial assistance for medical bills or lost wages. 

The act was amended in 2000 to allow more adequate compensation for victims of major airline accidents, but cruise ship provisions have remained in the pre-World War II era.

In modern times, the cruise industry uses DOHSA to avoid financial accountability for the wrongful deaths of passengers who do not have dependents or income. These passengers – including children, students, and retirees – account for a significant portion of the 12 million Americans who cruise each year.

As retirees, the Hammers did not have financial dependents or wages, so DOHSA has restricted the family from pursuing the compensation and accountability that would likely be available for a wrongful death occurring on dry land.

As we near the three-year anniversary of their passing, I am introducing “Hammers’ Law” to help correct this wrong. This bill would enable future families to pursue fairer compensation when similar tragedies strike. It will hold the responsible cruise line accountable by allowing for compensation that more fully reflects the company’s negligence. Hammers’ Law would finally align the cruise ship industry with the aviation industry under DOHSA.

My office has been working with Jill and Kelly for over a year, coordinating with the State Department to get answers from the Peruvian government and hold the responsible parties accountable. While answers have been found, DOHSA prevents holding the cruise company accountable. 

The Hammers’ Law would prevent other families from enduring what their family has for too long. Congress should pass it without delay. 

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you next week.

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