Cruise Ship Mishaps: The Challenges to Collecting Damages

 

The Carnival Triumph Incident

Last February, the Carnival Triumph cruise ship left Galveston, Texas for a four-night cruise. While the boat was sailing off of the Yucatan Peninsula, an engine room fire occurred. The fire was stopped by an automatic suppression system before anyone was injured, but the ship’s propulsion was damaged in the blaze. The ship had to resort to emergency backup power and wait for rescue. Tugboats were finally able to access the ship and it was returned to shore in Alabama. The passengers had been stranded at sea for five days with limited food and failing toilets.

“Given the conditions passengers endured while stuck at sea, many filed lawsuits against Carnival upon their return,” explained California personal injury lawyer James Ballidis. “Unfortunately, collecting damages for such mishaps can prove challenging.”

Passengers reported raw sewage on walls and floors; being forced to go to the bathroom in biohazard bags and sinks; and fighting over limited food. When the crew aboard the ship offered passengers an open bar, this only led to fights and altercations and had to be stopped. The passengers unfortunately had to wait out the incident, finding places to sleep where they could and largely taking care of each other. For example, some passengers shared Tylenol with children who were sick and others carried bedding and mattresses up from lower decks to help the sick and elderly.

Carnival offered the passengers a refund for the cruise, a credit for another trip and $500 for their ordeal. Some passengers did not believe that this was sufficient compensation, filing lawsuits based on breach of maritime contract, negligence, and fraud. One plaintiff who filed a claim against Carnival indicated to the Los Angeles Times that her claim was based on the “unseaworthy, unsafe, unsanitary and generally despicable conditions on the ship.” A class action was also filed, intended to seek compensation for more than 80 passengers.

The Rights of Cruise Ship Passengers

Cruise ship passengers face a number of potential problems in obtaining compensation for injuries and other damages, explains a California personal injury lawyer. One issue that has to be addressed is forum selection. Typically, cruise tickets will contain a forum selection clause that becomes part of the contract. This clause establishes a jurisdiction (court) where cases must be filed. Forum selection clauses are permitted unless they are unreasonably burdensome to the passengers. Because of these clauses, passengers who sue cruise ship companies must have their cases heard in the courts located in the area selected by the cruise ship, which may not be convenient if these plaintiffs are from distant geographic locations.

Another issue is that the Carnival cruise ship tickets contain a clause indicating that class actions are not permitted against the company. AT&T vs. Mobility made clear that people can contract away their right to form a class action, and courts in the past have largely upheld contractual terms and agreements found on cruise tickets and in cruise contracts.

Plaintiffs have sought a waiver allowing them to file a class action; however, the judge may not agree to do so. If a class action suit weren’t permitted, each plaintiff who wishes to recover monetary damages from Carnival would need to file an individual lawsuit. Many would likely be unable or unwilling to as a result of the time and the geographic limitations and the limited expected recovery available.

Even if the waiver were granted, the group of plaintiffs can only be certified as a class if they suffered substantially similar injuries. It is unclear whether this is the case with the plaintiffs who joined together in a suit against Carnival.

Yet another hurdle faced by the Carnival passengers is the fact that maritime law tends to favor ship owners and the maritime contract with Carnival was structured in a way to provide passengers with limited rights. The Carnival cruise line contract had several pages of legally binding small print, which imposes significant limitations on what the ship is actually obligated to do for passengers in the event that a breakdown occurs or problem develops. Unseaworthiness is also narrowly defined to address safety and security aboard the ship, and does not necessarily provide comprehensive guarantees of comfortable sleeping and bathroom accommodations on board the ship.

Finally, plaintiffs may also face difficulties in proving the extent of any damage suffered. Plaintiffs can obtain compensation for actual medical costs associated with injuries sustained on the cruise, as well as for lost wages, pain and suffering and emotional distress. The lawsuits in this case largely arise out of claims of pain and suffering, emotional distress and fear of harm as a result of conditions on the boat since there were no serious physical injuries suffered by passengers. To obtain compensation for these damages, plaintiffs would need to demonstrate some type of physical sign of emotional distress or actual harm, such as PTSD or a stress-induced heart attack.

Without proof that any type of lasting or significant damages were suffered, plaintiffs would be entitled to very little in compensation because they would be considered in the eyes of the law to have few or no compensable losses, explains a California personal injury lawyer. Since passengers were already given $500, a refund and a ticket for a cruise, it will be an uphill battle for most to show that they are entitled to a larger damage award from the courts.

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