Things that go bump in
the night happen. And when they happen on a ship, the horror of the
possibilities are heightened. Who would have paid to see the movie Titanic
if the ship hadn't sunk?
No one embarks on a cruise expecting the worst
and no major cruise line purposely puts their guest and ships in
danger, but the unexpected and unavoidable can occur during any
voyage. In my travels, I've been rousted in the middle of the night
by a fire alarm, spent the day at a Red Cross evacuation center, and suffered
the indignity of Norovirus--all on dry land.
Perhaps the idyllic and carefree perception of
cruise vacations is as much to blame as anything for passenger
discontent when the slightest out-of-the-ordinary incident crops up.
Cruise lines tout their products as 'simply the best' and 'like no
other vacation on earth.' Are they telling the truth? Absolutely.
It's true--the worst day on a cruise is better than any day on land.
Unless, of course, your ship is on fire, the plumbing doesn't work,
or you're dead in the water with a tropical storm fast approaching.
No cruise line or ship's officers would
purposely put their passengers and vessels in harms way. That simply
wouldn't make sense. Often decisions to change course and skip a
port are beyond their control, particularly when Mother Nature is
calling the shots. And there are accidents. However,
"unavoidable" is not much consolation to a cruising couple
celebrating twenty-five years of marriage on the second honeymoon of
Distracted by glamorous photos or dreams of
moonlit walks on deck and midnight buffets, few passengers take the
time to read the fine print, either in the cruise brochure or their
ticket. Even if they do read it, the legal language can intimidate
the average person.
For an explanation of passengers' rights and
assistance in translating the "contract of carriage"
(cruise ticket), I turned to James
M. Walker. A specialist in maritime law, Mr. Walker is a
member of the Maritime Law Association and serves on the Admiralty
Law Committee of the Florida Bar. In addition to having the unique
perspective of representing both cruise lines and passengers, he has
handled cases for clients throughout the United States, Canada,
Europe, and South America.
Mr. Walker graciously answered my
questions, providing insight into passenger rights and what to do if
things go terribly wrong on your vacation.
Walker (left) & associates
did you become involved in maritime law involving cruise ships?
grew up in a port city and our family traveled a lot.
Our vacations seemed to revolve around the water - a trip
down the Rhine, vacation in Malta, sailing in the Mediterranean Sea,
and so on. I have always had
an interest in the water. This
turned into an interest in maritime law once I started law school at
Tulane University, which has a pretty good maritime curriculum.
Once I moved to Miami, rightfully called the “cruise ship
capital of the world,” I joined a large firm which defended some
of the larger cruise lines.
that I am exclusively representing passengers and crew employees, I
find myself traveling again
on a regular basis. My
practice provides me with the opportunity to travel to beautiful
places like Vancouver and London, as well as small towns across the
heartland of the United States, to meet with our clients.
are your thoughts as a maritime lawyer regarding the collision
involving the Norwegian Dream in the English Channel and the
fire aboard Carnival’s Tropicale in the Gulf of Mexico some
incidents raise important questions whether the cruise lines are
devoting sufficient resources to protect passengers’ health and
personal safety. Unfortunately,
these mishaps are not isolated incidents.
the fire aboard the Tropicale. Despite
wide spread media coverage, few major news organizations reported
the Tropicale’s prior problems which could be traced back
to 1982 when a fire broke out during its inaugural cruise.
the Tropicale fire, Carnival’s Ecstasy caught fire
the previous year. Between
those two incidents, the Sun Vista ignited off of the coast
of Malaysia and 1,000 passengers found themselves in lifeboats in
the Straits of Malacca. The
video images of the Ecstasy on fire off of Miami Beach are
hard to forget, but few people remember that the Ecstasy
caught fire in 1996 as well. Carnival‘s
experience with ship fires is not limited to the Tropicale or
the Ecstasy. Remember
the fire aboard Carnival’s Celebration in 1995 which forced
1,700 passengers to evacuate? All
of this, and more, occurred in just four years.
each incident of this type, the cruise lines immediately offer a
reimbursement of some type and, perhaps, a free cruise.
Inevitably, the story becomes old and everyone - including
the cruise line - forgets about what happened, until the next
collision, fire, or other mishap occurs.
A Look At
second type of problem is when a passenger has been injured
aboard the cruise ship, due to an accident, food poisoning,
or an assault."
do you think of the practice of some cruise lines offering free
cruises to “compensate” for these type of mishaps?
a good start, but is it adequate compensation?
Lets look at the “cruise from hell” stories from the Tropicale.
These passengers included families who brought their minor
children aboard, couples honeymooning, or elderly citizens who used
their limited savings
for a relaxing vacation. Through no fault of their own, these nice
people quickly found themselves in a nightmare - drifting in the
Gulf of Mexico, nauseated, with a tropical storm approaching.
Carnival’s offer of a full refund and a free cruise is a good
idea, but is it adequate remuneration for their experiences? Does
this reflect a greater commitment to safety, or just a more savvy
public relations department?
cruise lines are more likely to offer free cruises now than just a
few years ago. Compare
Carnival’s approach today with its attitude just a few years ago.
In 1996, hundreds of passengers became sick and frightened
when highs seas rocked the Tropicale as Hurricane Roxanne
approached. 600 passengers
signed a petition for a full refund. They believed that the captain
threatened their safety by taking the cruise ship too close to the
hurricane. Carnival responded
with a $40 shipboard credit to make up for port charges on the
missed ports in Grand Cayman and Cozumel.
Does anyone really think this was sufficient compensation?
Or was this just a public relations nightmare?
you have any feel for how the passengers themselves regard these
passengers appreciate the “full-refund-plus-a-free-cruise”
offer. But many people are
not satisfied. The last thing
they want to do is to step foot on a particular cruise ship again.
course, the debate of a “free cruise or not” ignores the real
issue of passenger safety. The important question is whether the
cruise industry is devoting adequate financial resources to make
their fleet as safe as possible for families and their children.
Things like state of the art sprinkler systems, sophisticated
security monitoring, and vigorous background checks on their
this industry earns literally billions each year in profits, and
pays less than one percent in U.S. taxes by registering their
vessels in Liberia and Panama. The
notion that the traveling public should be happy with a free cruise
and a tote bag trivializes the fundamental issue of protecting the
precious lives and personal safety of millions of passengers every
is the most common complaint you hear from a cruise passenger?
are two general types of complaints.
The first is what I call the “disappointed expectation”
complaint. A passenger
becomes disappointed because he or she feels that the service was
poor, the weather was bad, their cabin had too much engine noise, or
something like this. These
type of complaints generally do not belong in a courtroom.
second type of problem is when a passenger has been injured aboard
the cruise ship, due to an accident, food poisoning, or an assault.
The most common situation is when a passenger slips on a
deck, trips on an elevated threshold, or falls down a flight of
stairs. It happens on every
most common complaint we hear is when a passenger writes to the
cruise line regarding a particular problem, and does not receive a
response after several months. Most
passengers who contact us are not the least bit
“lawsuit-minded.” Yet, they find themselves frustrated by the
cruise line’s lack of response after they return home.
are some of the interesting cases you have handled?
we defended several of the cruise lines in Miami and Fort
Lauderdale, we saw virtually every imaginable type of claim.
Of course, with more than five million people sailing on
cruises from U. S. ports each year - and everyone attempting to
escape from reality - there are a lot of unrealized dreams which
turn into strange lawsuits. Single women sue claiming that there
were not enough single men aboard the cruise ship.
The next week, single men sue claiming that there were not
enough single women.
favorite story involves an elderly widow from Miami Beach who loved
to sail aboard from Miami at least three times a year.
Unfortunately, she would trip or slip or fall every other
cruise. She would file suit
every year in December and then try to settle the case as soon as
possible for at least two free cruises - first class no less.
She still sends me a holiday greeting card every December.
would agree that there is no constitutional or absolute right to a
perfect vacation or cruise?
what are the types of things which go wrong that are not the cruise
problems which fall into the “disappointed expectation” category
are not the cruise line’s legal responsibility.
An example would be when cruise lines change the itinerary
and the passengers miss a popular port.
courts determine whether a cruise line is legally responsible to a
passenger by reviewing the terms of the passenger ticket.
I saw one judge literally pull out a magnifying glass to read
the fine print buried in the ticket.
The passenger invariably loses when this occurs, which is not
surprising. The cruise lines
have spent considerable effort drafting language which protects them
from virtually every imaginable situation.
The exception is when a passenger has been injured or
assaulted - there is a federal statute which prohibits cruise lines
from limiting their liability in these circumstances.
However, this exception may not apply if the cruise ship does
not call on a U.S. port.
lines reserve the right to change their itineraries at their
discretion. Do passengers
have any right to compensation or a refund (other than port
charges) if such a change is made?
based on the “fine print” in the ticket.
For example, Royal Caribbean’s language says that it
“may at any time and without prior notice cancel, advance,
postpone or deviate from any scheduled sailing or port of call.”
As a public relations gesture, some cruise lines offer $100
or so for missing a port. But
this is dependant entirely on the cruise line; they hold all of
the cards in these type of situations.
from staterooms is pretty uncommon on cruise ships, but if
something disappears mysteriously from my cabin, what recourse do
none. Again, most tickets
limit the cruise line’s liability for theft.
Carnival excludes any liability for money, jewelry, or
other valuables “left lying about the vessel or cabin.” This
seems reasonable enough. But
even if the cruise lines is negligent, there is a $100 limit of
liability for lost valuables, and a $500 limit if the valuables
are deposited in a safe-deposit box in the purser’s office and
then lost or stolen.
reported case involved a passenger who reported the loss of
several hundred thousands of dollars in jewelry.
The court dismissed the case based on the language in the
passenger’s ticket limiting the cruise line’s liability to
$100. My only advice is to
leave your priceless jewelry at home, or buy insurance before you
Steps to a
lines are not in the business of giving away their money. You
have to be prepared to fight for what you are
seeking the assistance of an attorney, what steps should a
passenger take to resolve a claim?
read your ticket and take steps to protect your rights! Passengers
who are injured have to send a letter to the cruise lines within a
short period, usually six months, advising the cruise line that
they intend to seek compensation. Also,
passengers have a very short period - usually only one year - in
which to file suit when they have been injured.
If they are one day late, they lose their right to seek
a passenger is injured on a cruise ship, what proof should they
present to substantiate a claim for personal injury?
course, not all injuries are compensable.
There are two issues to consider.
The first issue is liability - it is the passenger’s
burden to prove that the cruise line is legally responsible for
the accident. The second
issue is damages - medical expenses, lost wages, and other
intangible losses caused by an injury.
This issue is simple; keep receipts of all of your
out-of-pocket expenses, insurance claims, and medical bills.
Be sure to request your shipboard medical records before
you disembark. The cruise
lines will usually try to put you off the ship without them, but
remember - these are records of your health, and you are
absolutely entitled to obtain a copy before you leave.
most important issue is liability.
A passenger will need proof that the cruise line was
passengers have to establish that there was a danger aboard the
ship, such as an unexpected step-down without any warning signs.
Secondly, they must establish that the cruise line knew or
should have known of the hazard, yet failed to correct the hazard
or warn passengers of the danger. This
is often quite difficult to establish.
a practical matter, passengers need to take photographs and video
of the accident scene, take notes and document what occurred, and
record the names and addresses of all witnesses.
In seventeen years of practicing law, I have never seen a
cruise line respond to a passenger’s complaint by saying “yes,
we are responsible - sorry, here is your check.”
Cruise lines are not in the business of giving away their
money. You have to be
prepared to fight for what you are entitled.
is the most important thing for a passenger to remember if they
intend to seek compensation from a cruise line?
forget the one year limitations period! Many cruise lines
correspond, quite pleasantly, back and forth with passengers
regarding their claims. They
invite the passenger to submit medical reports.
A month or two later, they request other documents,
implying that additional information is necessary to evaluate the
claim. The cruise lines
never mention the one year limitations period, but they know that
the clock is ticking away on the passenger’s rights.
On the 365th day, when the limitations period has expired,
they notify the passenger that the claim is barred.
I cannot tell you how many times passengers contact us
after the one year period has expired.
The ball game is over! There
is very little we can do at this point.
you explain what steps you take to negotiate a resolution between
a passenger and a cruise line?
we believe that the cruise line is at fault, our approach is
always to send correspondence to the cruise line’s risk
management department and attempt to establish a dialogue.
lawyers by-pass the negotiation stage and file suit immediately.
This is not always in a passenger’s best interest.
The passenger usually lives in a distant state or in Canada
or Europe. All cruise lines
require that the lawsuit must be filed in a certain city, such as
Miami. The passengers will
therefore have to travel to Miami to appear for a deposition and
for trial. Over 90% of our
clients live outside of Florida, and over 30% live abroad.
It is expensive to travel to and from Miami, and these
expenses usually cannot be recovered from the cruise line even if
they are found responsible.
therefore try to make a good faith effort to present our client’s
case efficiently, and to submit the medical documentation necessary
for the cruise lines to make a reasonable offer without the
necessity of a lawsuit. Certain
cruise lines offer fair compensation in meritorious cases.
Other companies play “hard ball” on every claim.
They will not offer anything until the lawsuit is filed and
the trial date is approaching.
all else fails and a lawsuit is the last resort, how long can a
passenger expect the process to take?
depends from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
In Florida, it can take a year to two years before the case
is tried. Then there is the
potential for another year if an appeal is taken.
Patience is a desirable trait to develop.
there anything you’d like to add?
hope that your readers have a safe and enjoyable cruise.