Will compensation keep cruise ship lawsuits at bay?
Pat Hewitt, CTVNews.ca
Published Thursday, February 14, 2013 5:58PM EST
Last Updated Friday, February 15, 2013 8:52AM EST
While some angry passengers aboard the disabled Carnival cruise ship may consider suing the company after an engine room fire set the ship adrift for days in the Gulf of Mexico, a maritime lawyer doesn't expect it would be worth their while.
Jim Walker, with Miami-based Cruise Law News, says travellers have few legal options when their dream vacation turns into a nightmare. Passengers' rights are determined by the terms and conditions of the ticket that was issued to them by Carnival, he said.
"Over decades the lawyers for cruise lines have drafted these contracts to really strip away all the rights of cruise passengers," Walker told CTV News.
Just because passengers were inconvenienced or aggravated, it doesn't mean they have grounds to sue, he said. If they become ill or injured, that's a different story, he said.
Triumph and its 4,200 passengers and crew left Galveston, Texas, for a four-day cruise last Thursday. An engine room fire early Sunday knocked out power, crippling the ship's water and plumbing systems and leaving it adrift and on back-up power about 240 kilometres off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. It was limping to a port in Mobile, Ala., Thursday afternoon.
Passengers have described using plastic bags to go to the bathroom, seeing and smelling the urine and fecal matter on the floor and waiting for hours to get food. Pictures they've tweeted show a virtual tent city with sheets aloft on decks with deck, chairs being used as makeshift beds. Mattresses line the hallways inside the ship.
"We R not OK," is written in red on a banner help up by two people while "R.I.P Triumph" is scribbled in blue on another sheet held by two men.
Carnival has offered to reimburse passengers their fares and transportation home, to waive fees for most onboard purchases, provide a cruise credit equal to the cost of the current cruise and $500.
"Is that enough? For many that won't be," said Walker.
"For some it's always a happy ending if you have a fire on a cruise ship and you make it off alive."
Walker said he has been contacted by people on the ship about possible lawsuits. But he said he expects few will actually make it to court once people are back home and have showered.
"There are certainly people who want lawsuits to be filed," he said.
"But if you have received full compensation for the cruise, cruise credit, a little cash compensation on top of that -- we certainly wouldn't be trying to do any better than that because the rights of the passengers are restricted."
Ken Carver, with the Phoenix, Ariz.-based group International Cruise Victims, said the compensation is "a drop in the bucket" for what passengers have gone through. But he agreed that little legal action can be taken against cruise lines because of ticket conditions.
Jason Clampet, head of content for the travel news website Skift.com, said with the compensation Carnival is providing, passengers won't need to use their trip insurance, which would only cover the costs of trips delayed or interrupted and for damages to belongings such as laptops damaged by sewage.
"I think people will judge (Carnival's) actions over the next couple of weeks, if people get ill or if there are residual effects from the trip, once they get over the anger of being on the ship for so long," said Clampet.
But the ship's woes will have a ripple effect on the industry, he said.
The breakdown of Triumph will have a bigger impact on travellers in North America than last year's Costa Concordia disaster off Italy which claimed 32 lives, he predicted.
"It's the type of cruise most Americans and Canadians go on," he said.
Everyone knows someone who's taken a cheap cruise down to the Caribbean, he noted.
Carnival Cruise Lines will feel the effect more than most, but other cruise companies will discount heavily to get passengers back on board, Clampet said.
"The message here is to be insured," said Anita Mueller, director of operations for CAA South Central Ontario.
"A cruise should be a fantastic event," said Mueller, but travellers should assess what risks they could face when on vacation. Different insurance packages cover losses, and travellers should make sure they have medical coverage before they head out on holiday, she added.
Both Carver and Walker would like greater oversight over cruise lines whose ships are registered in places like Bermuda, the Bahamas or Panama and are out of the reach of U.S. laws.
Carnival Cruise Lines has admitted the Bahamian-registered Triumph had an electrical problem with the ship's alternator on its previous voyage that was repaired Feb. 2. The National Transportation Safety Board in the U.S. has opened an investigation with Bahamian authorities leading the way.
Canadian officials have been in contact with cruise representatives, said Foreign Affairs spokesman John Babcock. A Canadian consular official was sent to Mobile to provide help for Canadian passengers on the ship.