By Tom Brown
MIAMI (Reuters) - Princess Cruises has been hit with a lawsuit accusing it of "outrageous conduct" and "callous disregard for human life" for failing to rescue three young men aboard a disabled Panamanian fishing boat, two of whom later died at sea.
The civil complaint, in a tragic high seas case that has grabbed the international spotlight, was filed in circuit court in Miami last week.
It was filed on behalf of 18-year-old Adrian Vasquez of Panama, the sole survivor of the incident in the open Pacific Ocean earlier this year.
Vasquez and two friends, 16-year-old Fernando Osorio and Oropeces Betancourt, 24, were adrift after losing power aboard the small boat in which they had embarked from Rio Hato, Panama, on February 24 on a commercial fishing trip.
The vessel, called the Fifty Cents, had been adrift for 15 days when it came within sight of the Star Princess, a luxury cruise ship operated by Princess Cruises, the lawsuit says.
Three Star Princess passengers spotted it and alerted a crew member to the vessel, as Vasquez and his friends waved their arms and a shirt tied to a pole to signal they were in distress, according to the lawsuit.
It contends that the cruise ship refused to offer any assistance, however, failing to alter its course and sealing the fate of two young men who died what were otherwise avoidable deaths.
The lack of help was despite the fact that the crew member who "visually confirmed the distressed boat for himself" was alleged to have reported the emergency situation to the cruise ship's bridge and other Princess employees, the civil complaint says.
Osorio died about 24 to 36 hours after the Star Princess sighting, according to Manuel Epelbaum, an attorney for Vasquez. He said Osorio's death was followed within a matter of days by that of Betancourt.
"They're claiming the captain didn't know," Epelbaum told Reuters, referring to a statement issued by Princess Cruises on Monday.
"We're questioning whether that is even true," he said.
Princess Cruises, a unit of global cruise industry giant Carnival Corp, said it was still investigating the Fifty Cents incident and the claim that Star Princess failed to come to the aid of the disabled fishing boat.
But the cruise line, which is based in Santa Clarita, California, blamed an apparent breakdown in communication through the chain of command on the cruise ship.
"Because of what we suspect was a case of unfortunate miscommunication, regretfully the captain of Star Princess was never notified of the passengers' concern," it said in a statement.
"This is an upsetting and emotional issue for us all, as no employee onboard a Princess ship would purposefully ignore someone in distress," the statement added. "It is our ethical and maritime responsibility to provide assistance to any vessel in need, and it is not an uncommon occurrence for our ships to be involved in a rescue at sea."
Vasquez was rescued 13 days after being sighted by the Star Princess passengers by another fishing boat near the Galapagos Islands, according to the lawsuit.
It asserts that the trio of passengers who witnessed the distressed vessel followed up with a Star Princess officer, two days after the sighting, but the officer walked away without offering any explanation.
"This incident was once again reported to an officer of the Star Princess who continued the pattern of callous disregard for human life," the complaint says.
"This pattern of conscious neglect further evidences Princess' outrageous conduct and their complete disregard for the lives and safety of the men who were adrift at sea," it says.
Princess Cruises did not return a call seeking comment on the Fifty Cents case.
Epelbaum said the Star Princess' failure to rescue people lost at sea violated general maritime law and several international treaties or conventions. But maritime legal experts say enforcement of such laws or obligations is limited, often falling to the flag state of the ship in question.
The Star Princess is registered in Bermuda under the so-called "flag of convenience" system, which allows U.S.-based cruise ships to avoid many U.S. taxes and labor and safety laws.
(Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Eric Walsh)