Cruise ship operators, captains and senior officers should be aware of the decision in Royal Caribbean Cruises v Rawlings, in which the Court of Appeal confirmed the Australian law position on the authority of a master to detain a person on board.

Under Australian common law a master may detain a person on their ship if the master has reasonable cause to believe, and does in fact believe, that the relevant detention or confinement is necessary for the preservation of order and discipline, or for the safety of the vessel or persons or property on board.

This was the unanimous ruling of the New South Wales Court of Appeal in the recent decision of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd v Rawlings [2022] NSWCA 4.

In so holding, the Court of Appeal held that the Australian common law governing the power of the master to detain was the same as the English common law, as correctly summarised by Slade J in Hook v Cunard Steamship Co [1953] 1 WLR 682 at 684-685; [1953] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 413 at 423-4.

Cruise ship passenger held in confinement following allegation of sexual assault

Mr Rawlings was a passenger on the Royal Caribbean's Bahamian-flagged cruise ship during a ten-day voyage in the Pacific, departing Sydney on 10 November 2016 and returning on 20 November. In the early hours of 15 November, an incident occurred resulting in his being suspected of having sexually assaulted an 18-year-old female passenger (“A”). The alleged assault occurred while the ship was in international waters. As investigations into the incident proceeded, Mr Rawlings was confined in the ship’s conference room, and subsequently in a guest cabin, for the five remaining days of the cruise.

After two days of detention, the ship’s captain received an email from Royal Caribbean's onshore security department which recommended that Mr Rawlings be released on condition that he have no contact with A or her mother, sister and grandparents (who were also on board). 

Following a meeting between the captain, senior ship’s officers, and A and her mother, at which A’s mother became emotional and threatened to throw Mr Rawlings overboard if he were released, the captain communicated his decision at midday to keep Mr Rawlings in confinement for the remaining three days until the ship returned to Sydney.

Royal Caribbean appeals District Court's decision to award general damages for the period of unlawful detention

Mr Rawlings brought proceedings in the District Court, claiming damages for wrongful detention and false imprisonment. The primary judge held that the captain was justified in detaining Mr Rawlings for the first two days, but not thereafter. The primary judge awarded general damages of $70,000 and aggravated damages of $20,000 for the period of unlawful detention, and ordered that Royal Caribbean pay the whole of Mr Rawlings’ costs of the proceeding.

Royal Caribbean appealed.

NSW Court of Appeal allows appeal

At first instance and on appeal, the case proceeded on the basis that the applicable law was that of New South Wales, even though the events took place on the high seas on board a Bahamian flagged ship. This was a function of the way in which the case had been pleaded by the parties.

On the core issue of principle, namely the authority of the master to detain a person on the ship, there was no contest in either court. The position as stated above was accepted by both parties and by all judges in both courts.

The first instance judge had found on the evidence that the master did not have the requisite subjective belief, after the first two days, in the necessity of detaining Mr Rawlings for the preservation of order and discipline, or for the safety of the vessel or persons or property on board. 

After a detailed review of the evidence, Meagher JA (with whom Bell P and Leeming JA agreed) reached a contrary view, as a result of which (in addition to other grounds based on the evidence) Royal Caribbean's appeal was allowed.

Master's authority to detain a person on board under Australian law - considerations for shipping and cruise ship industries 

While the appeal turned on varying conclusions of fact based on the evidence at first instance, the Court of Appeal decision is a helpful confirmation of the Australian law position with respect to the authority of a master to detain a person on board.

While this confirmation of the legal position will be of interest to masters and operators generally, it will be of particular relevance in the cruise ship context, and should be made known to and understood by operators, captains and senior officers in any context where Australian or English law could potentially apply.

Consideration should also be given to reviewing passenger terms and conditions to ensure there is appropriate alignment of the common law and contractual positions.