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Your guide to cruise ship illnesses

Woman in bed blowing her nose - cruise ship illness

A guarantee of sun, sea and good food continues to attract British holidaymakers who opt to go on a cruise instead of the traditional seaside resort for their annual vacation.

The continued appeal of holiday cruising saw a total of 13 ocean new cruise ships launched in 2014 and 2015 and twenty new vessels with a combined capacity for 60,000 passengers are under construction between now and 2016. (Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA)

Today’s cruising vessels are giant floating hotels with several dining rooms, buffet-style eateries, bar and lounges, which provides highly efficient, quality catering for thousands of passengers each day. But sometimes things can go wrong, and when they do, can quickly spread illness to the huge numbers of passengers carried by a modern cruise ship.

If the way that food is prepared or stored does not meet the required standard there can be a major outbreak of a food poisoning virus.

Stomach bugs are formed by bacteria, which may be caused by:

  • Eating contaminated food
  • Eating undercooked food
  • Drinking contaminated water

Cruise and ferry ship journeys may not always be “plain sailing” so it’s important to be aware of the legal duty of care you are owed by cruise operators.

The rules about making a claim are different from a hotel or resort if you or one of your family unfortunately suddenly fall ill aboard a ship or ferry.

Your Legal Friend has 30 years experience and specialist knowledge in all aspects of international personal injury law. We provide you with all the expert guidance you will need to help you help you succeed in making your claim against a UK tour operator / cruise line.


  • 15 outbreaks of Norovirus illness, on average, occur on cruise ships every year.          (Cruise Minus, 2015)
  • 1.79 million British holidaymakers took a cruise in 2013, an increase of 89,000 passengers or around 5 per cent more than in 2012.
  • Passenger figures have risen by 21 per cent, or more than 300,000 in the last five years.          (Cruise Lines International Association, 2014)
  • The total number of passengers carried by cruise ships is expected to exceed 24 million in 2018.          (Statista Inc, 2014)

What are the common types of illnesses?

The most common types of bacteria responsible for food poisoning illnesses are :

Campylobacter  -  found on raw or undercooked meat (particularly poultry), unpasteurised milk and untreated water.

E. coli - found in the digestive system. Food poisoning occurs after eating undercooked beef products.

Salmonella - found in raw or undercooked meat, raw eggs, milk, and other dairy products.

Shigella - found in any food that has been washed in contaminated water.

Dysentery - found in faeces passed on by someone with the infection who neglects to wash their hands after using the WC.


Viruses can either be brought on board by passengers or picked up through human contact. Outbreaks of norovirus have been increasingly linked with cruise ships because health officials are required to track illnesses on ships but not at hotels or resorts.

Noroviruses - can cause inflammation of the stomach and the large intestines, called  gastroenteritis. The disease can be passed via contaminated food and water but is typically spread on cruise ships through physical contact with ill people or surfaces/objects they may have touched.

Causes – flu-like symptoms,nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach cramps. Fever and headache are also possible.       

Symptoms – appear after one to three days and usually last between 24 to 48 hours. A passenger may be contagious for as long as two weeks after recovery.

A cruise ship illness can rapidly pass from person to person

The average cruise ship passenger capacity is around 3,000 for ocean liners but the largest vessels can carry from 5,400 to 6,300 at max capacity if all berths are occupied. A cruise ship illness can rapidly pass from person to person.

The most common ways that an outbreak will spread are:

Hand to mouth contact from people carrying a bug

From touching infected surfaces - such as door handles, railings, toilet flush handles, food utensils, elevator buttons, etc.

Poor hygiene practices and systems

- failing to wash hands after using the W.C

- lack of stringent anti-bacterial sanitisers dispensers

- unprotected salad bars

- refilling of water bottles in buffet area

Deep cleaning

Where a serious illness cannot be contained, cruise lines may halt the cruise and order a thorough ‘deep clean’ sanitisation, which puts the ship out of service for a few days.

If you fall ill onboard a cruise ship...

The law is different from making a holiday injury claim, for an accident which occurred at a hotel or resort.

The Terms and Conditions contained in your holiday contract, which are supplied by both Tour operators and Cruise lines are bound by regulations set out in the Athens Convention.

The Athens Convention – what you need to know

The  Athens Convention applies to EU member states and has been in force in the UK since 1996.

Seagoing vessels owe a “duty of care” in the carriage of passengers and luggage by sea, and to passengers who are either getting on or off the boat.

The Convention operates in favour of the consumer. The fault is automatically presumed on the part of the carrier unless they can prove otherwise, and is different from claims under the Package Travel Regulations 1992, which require you to prove the carrier was at fault.

A cruise ship accident claim will almost always be in accordance with the Athens Convention and not under Package Holiday Regulations 1992.

You can still make a complaint for a ‘spoilt holiday’, according to Package Holiday Regulations 1992 but this will be a completely separate action.

It is also important to be aware that under the Athens Convention, the Terms and Conditions:

  • Only apply to cruises that start and finish in a UK port
  • Do not apply to domestic cruises around the British Isles and the coast of Scotland.

If your cruise departed from a foreign destination...

You may be able to proceed with a claim under the Package Travel Regulations 1992 but only if:

  • There were no ‘stop-off’ ports of call inbetween
  • Your tour operator is a UK company

Time Limit

A further important difference is the time you have to make a claim from when the accident occurred:

  • 2 years - Athens Convention  
  • 3 years - Package Travel Regulations

Compensation Limit

A limit is imposed on the amount of compensation that can be claimed for personal injury or death.


All sea carriers must have insurance as they have a strict liability for passenger personal injury, fatality or any shipping related incident unless there is evidence to show the incident was caused by:

  • Natural phenomenon of an “exceptional, inevitable and irresistible character”, or
  • Wholly caused by a third party.

Making a claim – what you need to know

Building your case and making a claim requires the in-depth knowledge of a specialist solicitor.

Your Legal Friend has 30 years experience and knowledge in all aspects of international personal injury law.

We specialise in helping all those who have suffered from a holiday accident, injury or illness while onboard a cruise ship through no fault of their own and wish to claim compensation against a UK tour operator / cruise line.

We can help you to claim back any additional expenses you have suffered as a result of your accident, such as:

  • Any medical expenses you had to meet whilst on holiday
  • Time taken off work on your return from holiday
  • Missing out on any holiday activities, which your injury prevents you from participating in. 

Throughout your claim, Your Legal Friend will help you every step of the way.

  • Specialist team of occupational illness solicitors
  • A wealth of knowledge and expertise
  • Advice, support and guidance throughout your claim
  • No upfront fees or payments
  • Over 30 years of experience in personal injury compensation

Talk to us today

For an informal, confidential chat with one of our specialist medical negligence solicitors... Call us now on 0808 301 7535 (calls free from landlines and mobiles). Or just complete the 'Start a new claim’ option on the right and we'll call you straight back.