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Smith Vs. Royal Caribbean

Probate judge upholds Smith widow’s deal with cruise line

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May 08, 2008

Greenwich Probate Judge David Hopper last Friday upheld Jennifer Hagel Smith’s $1-million settlement with Royal Caribbean cruise lines.

Ms. Hagel Smith reached the agreement after her husband, George A. Smith IV, a 26-year-old Greenwich man, went missing on their honeymoon cruise. Mr. Smith’s parents, George III and Maureen, challenged the out-of-court settlement so they could file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of their son against Royal Caribbean.

Judge Hopper ruled that Ms. Hagel Smith had acted “prudently” in negotiating the agreement in June 2006. The Smith family claimed she reached the settlement without their knowledge.

“One thing that is clear about this case is that there are no winners,” said Judge Hopper, in his decision. “Both parties have suffered a great loss, which will be with them for the rest of their lives.”

Douglas Brown, attorney for Jennifer Hagel Smith, said she felt “vindicated and relieved by Judge Hopper’s decision. We hope that the Smith family will not pursue further litigation.” When asked why, Mr. Brown said, “Because it is emotionally draining.”

However, Mike Jones, attorney for the Smith family, said that the family is considering an appeal. “We are disappointed and frankly, very surprised, based upon the way the evidence went in,” he said. “We do not agree with the court’s findings and more than likely will be filing an appeal.”

In his decision, Judge Hopper cited the complexities of the case, in which Mr. Smith went missing on his honeymoon cruise in the Aegean Sea on July 5, 2005, after commotion was heard in his cabin and bloodstains were found in his room and on the metal overhang below his balcony. The FBI is still actively investigating the highly publicized case, spokesman Thomas Carson said last week.

“After a review of the facts, and the applicable maritime, international and domestic law, there is no way to possibly predict the result of any litigation associated with this case,” Judge Hopper wrote. “Under some circumstances, it would be conceivable for the estate to recover nothing and be in debt due to the costs associated with fully and properly litigating the issues.”

Mr. Smith’s honeymoon ship, the Brilliance of the Seas, was incorporated in the Bahamas, and cruise ships are mainly governed by international law.

The Smiths had filed their own lawsuit against the Florida-based cruise line only a few hours before Ms. Hagel Smith and Royal Caribbean announced their proposed settlement. The Smith family’s lawsuit said the cruise line tried to cover up the suspicious circumstances of Mr. Smith’s disappearance to protect their public image.

“The cruise line deliberately and intentionally portrayed the incident as an accident, and hampered a full-blown, appropriate investigation into the facts and circumstances of George A. Smith’s death,” the family’s suit said.

Judge Jon Gordon dismissed the family’s lawsuit in Miami on Oct. 26, 2006, but Brett Rivkind, an attorney for the Smith family, said they are appealing.

“I expect oral arguments to start in the near future,” he said, last week.

Mr. Rivkind said the Smith family’s “search for truth” is an attempt to get closure for this tragedy, to find out what happened to their son and brother. That’s what it’s always been about. It’s not about money. It’s an attempt to get information.”

The publicity surrounding the case drew scrutiny to the $34-billion-a-year cruise industry and led the Smiths to co-found a cruise victims advocacy group, International Cruise Victims (ICV). The group provides support for victims of cruise crimes and attempts to raise awareness about the need for safety and transparency reforms.

The case also prompted U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-4th) to hold congressional hearings on cruise ship security and draft legislation aimed at promoting greater transparency.

An amendment sponsored by Mr. Shays, Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) to improve the transparency of cruise ship crime reporting statistics passed the House of Representatives on April 24.

The amendment to the Coast Guard Authorization Act, which passed by a vote of 395 to 7, requires the Coast Guard to maintain a numerical accounting of missing persons and alleged crimes committed on cruise ships and have the information available online. It will be updated quarterly by the cruise line.

The amendment also requires cruise lines to include a link to this database on their Web sites.

“I am grateful this legislation will improve the transparency of cruise crime statistics and the safety of cruise ship passengers,” Mr. Shays said via e-mail. “Next step is the Senate and we’re hopeful they take up this legislation this session.”

U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is sponsoring the Senate bill.

In California, a bill that would give the state the most stringent cruise ship safety and environmental regulations in the country was approved by its Senate Public Safety Committee and is pending in the legislature. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Joe Simitian, would require every cruise ship entering and exiting a California port to have a qualified “ocean ranger” on board, similar to sky marshals on airlines, Mr. Simitian said, adding, “The cruise lines’ performance on safety and the environment is inconsistent at best.”

But Terry Dale, president and chief executive officer of Cruise Lines International Association, questioned the legality of the bill, saying “CLIA believes the bill extends well beyond California’s jurisdiction, may jeopardize criminal investigations, is overly burdensome given the track record of the cruise lines on environmental compliance and criminal reporting, and will set a precedent for conflicting state, federal and international requirements.”

Mr. Simitian said the cruise lines have “a dozen and one legal arguments” to “move the conversation away” from public safety.

Kendall Carver, co-founder of ICV with the Smiths, called the California bill “a big step forward.”

“The cruise industry has failed to adopt adequate measures to protect its passengers This legislation is to be commended,” she added.

Mr. Carver’s daughter, Merrian, 40, disappeared from a Royal Caribbean Alaskan cruise in August 2004.

But Mr. Carver said both bills still face uphill battles. The cruise industry spent more than $825,000 in the first six months of 2007 to lobby the federal government in its favor, according to a disclosure form. From January 2004 to July 2005, the industry spent $2.9 million on federal lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Probate judge upholds Smith widow’s deal with cruise line

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