It’s the captain’s call to
confine a person to a cabin on a cruise ship
Half-way through a 10 day cruise around islands in the
Pacific, an 18 year old female was the victim of a sexual
assault. Shortly afterwards, a male passenger was detained
on orders by the ship’s captain. The suspect was confined to
a cabin for the remainder of the voyage.
The master of a ship’s power or authority to detain or
confine any person on board the vessel under the Australian
common law has been assumed but not tested in a superior
court until now.
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd v Rawlings 
NSWCA 4 (4 February 2022) a decision by the Court of Appeal
of the Supreme Court of New South Wales (Meagher JA, Bell P
and Leeming JA agreeing), is now authority for the
Australian common law rule that the master of a ship has the
power or authority to detain and confine any sailor or
person on board his ship if these requirements are
“it must be established that 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.”
[judgment, paragraph 35]
Note: there is an objective requirement “reasonable cause
to believe” as well as a subjective belief “does in fact
believe” that confinement is necessary.
The incident, the detention
In the early hours of 15
November 2016, the “Explorer of the Seas”, a cruise ship
operated by Caribbean Cruises, was in international waters
heading towards Mystery Island, an uninhabited island in the
Republic of Vanuatu.
At 5:39 am (ship’s time), the victim was found naked and
disoriented in an unrelated guest’s room, the circumstances
suggesting that she was a victim of a sexual assault.
According to the CCTV footage, the victim and another female
guest had entered into the suspect’s room earlier at 2:10am
and left naked some two and half hours later.
The suspect’s room was sealed, the victim was
interviewed, and a medical examination was undertaken. This
included a urine test for drugs (none found), DNA swabs and
a blood sample.
The incident was reported to Global Security, based in
Miami Florida, in accordance with the internal procedures of
Caribbean Cruises. It was categorised as “Sexual Assault
Rape – based on victim’s inability to consent due to being
The suspect was detained first in
the ship’s conference room and was then confined in a guest
On 16 November, the ship arrived at Nouméa. The police
refused to accept custody of the suspect or investigate the
incident because it happened in international waters and
outside their “land/sea jurisdiction”. Australian consular
officers boarded the ship and met with the victim and the
accused. The victim and her mother went ashore and gave a
statement to the police. The consular official maintained
daily contact with the suspect thereafter.
At 6:26am on 17
November, Global Security sent an email to the captain which
recommended the release of the suspect from isolation, on
condition that he have no contact with the victim or anyone
travelling with or related to her, and having his alcohol
consumption cut off.
The captain considered the advice from Global Security, but
was not bound to take it because ultimately, he “had the
authority and responsibility to maintain the safety and
security of everyone on board the vessel”.
Later that morning, the captain met with the victim and
her mother to explain the Global Security recommendation.
The mother’s response was emotional and forthright: “I will
throw the suspect overboard if he is being released from
The captain decided to keep the suspect in
confinement in a guest cabin. A security guard was stationed
outside until the ship retuned to Sydney. He was allowed to
leave the ship at 1:00pm on 20 November 2016, several hours
after the ship docked in Sydney.
During his confinement the suspect was checked on
regularly every half hour; was visited by the ship’s doctor
or nurse on more than six occasions; spoke on the telephone
to the consul daily; was offered the opportunity and did to
go outside on accompanied walks for fresh air and to smoke
on the crew deck; and was provided with ready access to food
and non-alcoholic beverages, as well as to necessary
clothing from the ship’s gift shop.
The award for wrongful
The primary judge found that the detention was justified
only until midday on 17 November.
The primary judge found that the captain’s state of mind
on the morning of 17 November was “that he did not consider
continued confinement was reasonably necessary” and “changed
his mind because of the reaction of the victim’s mother” –
that is, the subjective belief requirement was not
As a result, in his view, Caribbean Cruises could not
rely upon the justification defence that the confinement was
necessary after that time.
The primary judge awarded general damages of $70,000 and
aggravated damages of $20,000, for wrongful detention for
the period from 17 to 20 November 2016.
See Rawlings v Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd 
NSWDC 39 District Court of New South Wales (Hatzistergos DCJ).
The Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal found that the primary judge’s findings
concerning the captain’s state of mind did not accord with
The Court of Appeal found that the continued confinement
of the suspect for the remainder of the voyage was
“reasonably necessary for the preservation of order and
discipline or for the safety of the vessel or the persons or
property on board”.
“the safety and security of passengers included the
victim’s emotional well-being; and a significant risk to
safety and security of those passengers was that of
contact and any resulting conflict involving the suspect
and the victim’s family. That was particularly so
because of the victim’s mother’s reaction at the
meeting, which was “highly charged and emotional”. The
captain was also concerned to “preserve evidence” by
preventing communications between the respondent and
potential witnesses.” [judgment, paragraph 94]
As to Global Security’s recommendation that the suspect
be released on condition of avoiding contact, the captain’s
evidence was that he understood it to be guidance, not an
The captain’s assessment was that, given the limited
staff and resources at the ship’s disposal, he could not
ensure there would be no such contact unless the suspect
remained in confinement. In evidence he said that there were
“maybe 16” security guards to monitor and safeguard the
3,000 passengers on the ship, and “we can’t follow every
single individual around the ship all the time [using CCTV]”
and so the “safest thing was to confine the accused”.
It was also relevant to the captain’s assessment that the
conditions of confinement were not unreasonable and were not
“akin to solitary confinement”. There was no complaint
recorded in the ship’s confinement log.
Court of Appeal set aside the judgment of the primary judge
and ordered that the suspect pay Caribbean Cruise’s legal
costs both in the District Court and in the Court of Appeal.
In reaching its decision, the Court of Appeal said:
- The Australian common law rule has not been
displaced or varied by statute and is not contrary to
some other doctrine or rule now forming part of the
Australian common law;
- The Australian common law rule includes the
principles as stated in Hook v Cunard Steamship Co.
 1 W.L.R. 682;
- Although the terms of Caribbean’s Contract of
Carriage included the captain’s power and authority to
detain and confine, the primary judge was correct to
consider these did not provide a separate defence to the
claim because they were not more favourable to Caribbean
than its position at common law;
- “Under Australian choice of law rules, the law
applicable to a tort committed on a vessel while on the
high seas – is the law of the state in which the vessel
is registered (the law of the flag)” – in this case it
was The Bahamas; “unless the applicability of foreign
law and its content is pleaded and proved, there is a
presumption that the content of the foreign law
applicable … is the same as the substantive law of the
forum …” in this case it was correct to apply the
substantive law of New South Wales;