It was Boxing Day when a 15-year-old girl boarded Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas ship with her two sisters and grandparents. It should have been a time of great celebration for the family, but it soon turned into a nightmare beyond belief.
According to a lawsuit filed in a Florida court, the teenager became separated from her family and was plied with alcohol by a group of around 12 adult male passengers in the lounge and other public areas of the ship.
She became "highly intoxicated, obviously drunk, disoriented and unstable" and "obviously incapacitated" and the men then led her to a cabin where they "brutally assaulted and gang raped her".
The girl, identified only as K.T., claims multiple cruise staff witnessed her becoming drunk during the 2015 incident, but "did nothing to protect or help her". They failed to step in and stop the men from getting her intoxicated or luring her away.
The lawsuit was first filed in December 2016 but was dismissed by the district court for failing to state a claim, with Royal Caribbean arguing that it was unforeseeable to the staff that a guest could be raped under the circumstances described by K.T.
She then appealed, and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal published an opinion last week reversing the decision and reinstating her negligence suit, finding K.T. had indeed sufficiently alleged the cruise company had breached its "duty of care" to the woman.
The complaint alleges that "as a direct and proximate result" of Royal Caribbean's negligence and failures, including to warn of the increased risk of sex attacks on-board, K.T. was "directly and proximately caused to be sexually assaulted and/or physically battered and/or gang raped".
Cruise passengers are also at higher risk of crime and injury on-board due to the "copious quantities" of alcohol on-board, according to the lawsuit, but little is done to protect them.
The appellate court found that: "The scope of Royal Caribbean's duty to protect its passengers is informed, if not defined, by its knowledge of the dangers they face on-board. And it allegedly knew a lot".
The company should have been well aware, as it had previously reported multiple sex assaults on its ships, as explained by Chief Judge Ed Carnes: "Publicly available data reinforces the allegations in the complaint that Royal Caribbean knew or should have known about the danger of sexual assault aboard its cruise ships …
"(It) would be absurd to suggest that a multibillion-dollar business like Royal Caribbean was not aware of congressional reports about the problem of sexual assaults aboard its cruise ships."
A Royal Caribbean spokesperson told news.com.au that while they are unable to comment on pending litigation, "we do take this allegation very seriously".
"The safety and security of our guests is our top priority," the spokesperson said.
SEXUAL ASSAULT A HUGE PROBLEM ON CRUISES
Unfortunately, K.T.'s case is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sexual assault at sea. Since 2010, cruise lines in America have been required to report sexual assaults and other serious crimes. According to the website Cruise Law News, run by Jim Walker from Walker & O'Neill maritime lawyers, this publicly available data shows there have been hundreds of sex attacks reported on cruise ships in the last few years, along with other serious crimes.
Rape has essentially become a systemic problem within the cruise industry and there is often little help available for victims who face difficulty pressing charges against their attackers, Miami-based New Times reports.
Because there are no police and no courts on-board cruise ships, which have become modern "floating cities", justice can be hard to achieve, especially when attacks occur while travelling between countries as there can be a lack of clarity on which laws apply.
"A cruise ship is like a floating city of 10,000 people with no police," Philip Gerson, a lawyer who testified before US Congress on behalf of a teenager who was raped by two men in 2014, told the New Times.
"You have a barbershop, you have a gym, you have retail stores, but no police. You have cruise ship security personnel, but their goal is to protect the cruise line, not you."
"It's a serious problem," Ken Carver, who founded the International Cruise Victims Association after his daughter Merrian vanished from a Royal Caribbean ship in 2014, said.
There have been several shocking sexual assault cases that have made it before the courts in recent years. One occurred just eight days prior to K.T.'s alleged attack. This time, an 11-year-old girl was sexually assaulted on-board the Disney Magic ship. The girl, who news.com.au chose to keep unnamed for legal reasons, had finished dinner with her parents and went for a quick walk alone when she was followed by crew member Juan Manuel Palma-Ortega and fondled three times. He confessed and was sentenced to two years in jail.
And the following year another gang rape was reported, this time on-board the Carnival Breeze. It involved another 15-year-old girl who was attacked by five men and dragged down a hallway into a room where she was stripped and violently raped. A lawsuit accused the cruise line of negligence and failing to provide a safe environment for guests.
Another horrific and high-profile rape case that highlighted issues with security on cruise ships was that of a woman who was "beaten, strangled and raped" by a crew member during a Holland America voyage.
Ketut Pujayasa was sentenced to 30 years jail for the vicious assault, where he used a master key to enter the woman's cabin and hide on her balcony, awaiting her return. The 31-year-old woman was beaten with various objects inside the room and then was almost thrown overboard, but was able to hold onto the railing and escape.
Other passengers heard her screams and reported them to the ship's staff members, but it allegedly took security 45 minutes to respond. According to police reports, the woman emerged from her room partially naked and covered in blood.
According to the lawsuit: "Pujayasa beat her head and face so hard that she experienced shifting of her teeth. All of the trauma to her head produced a traumatic brain injury."
Meanwhile, a case that made headlines earlier this year of a 17-year-old who was raped on-board a Panamanian-flagged cruise ship, showed the difficulty of dealing with crime at sea. Her attacker was arrested when the ship docked in Valencia, Spain, and taken to court. However, he was released because the incident occurred on international waters and a judge declared that Spain had no jurisdiction.
Ultimately, the problem of sex assault on cruise ships is so common that an online support group for victims has been established.
Maritime lawyers Lipcon, Magulies, Alsina & Winkleman warn travellers to be aware of the dangers, especially when consuming alcohol: "The truth remains that sexual assault is the number one crime aboard cruise ships. Sadly, they are also the most under-reported to the cruising public. So, when vacationers book their vacation at sea aboard a luxury liner, being sexually assaulted or raped is the furthest thing from their mind. This makes them even more vulnerable to perpetrators who commit these crimes on the high seas.
" … The use of alcohol on cruise ships can get out of hand. There are no authorities to enforce rules about underage drinking. The bartenders and waiters work mostly for tips so they want you to buy as many drinks as possible. Many sexual assaults and other crimes are alcohol involved."
Travellers are also advised to review their health insurance plans prior to boarding, stay vigilant and read their ticket's fine print as there may be a time limitation on filing a claim against the cruise company.
SEXUAL HARM - DO YOU NEED HELP?
If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone contact Safe to Talk confidentially:
• Call 0800 044 334
• Text 4334
• Email email@example.com
• For more info or to web chat visit www.safetotalk.nz
Alternatively contact your local police station -