Cruise Ships — Vacation Oases or Floating Nightmares?

Travelers on board disaster-stricken cruise ships seek legal remedies, and one politician urges the enactment of new legislation to protect passengers’ rights.

Photo by Jaclyn Murphy

In mid-May, I vacationed on board the cruise ship Carnival Glory on a five-day voyage.  The ship embarked from Norfolk, Virginia and was destined for the Bahamas, making stops in both Nassau and Freeport.  Luckily, my cruise ended without a hitch.  In fact, I could not have asked for a more relaxing, entertaining, and wonderful vacation.  However, problems have arisen on many cruise ships within the past several months, and these unfortunate incidents have drawn significant media attention.

On February 10, 2013, the Carnival Triumph lost propulsion in the Gulf of Mexico following an engine fire.  Passengers were stranded on board without working toilets, lights, hot water, air conditioning, elevators, and the usual smorgasbord of food.  The ship remained stranded at sea for five days until being towed to port in Alabama.  The voyage has since been nicknamed the “poop cruise.”

Unlike Carnival Triumph, power and propulsion on board Grandeur of the Seas was not affected.

A similar incident occurred on May 27, 2013, within days after I returned from my own cruise.  Grandeur of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, was sailing from Baltimore to CocoCay, Bahamas when a fire broke out on the third deck.  The fire spread to the fourth deck before it could be extinguished, but fortunately no one was hurt.  Unlike Carnival Triumph, power and propulsion on board Grandeur of the Seas was not affected.  The ship was able to sail into Freeport, Bahamas, and passengers were flown from Freeport to Baltimore after the incident.

Passengers on Carnival Triumph and Grandeur of the Seas received a full refund for their respective cruises and a certificate toward a future cruise.  Passengers on board Carnival Triumph received an additional $500.

Carnival Triumph is scheduled to resume full-time, year-round service in just a few days.

When my cruise ship docked in Freeport, Bahamas on May 16th, I noticed that the Carnival Triumph was out of the water being repaired.  I suspected that the Triumph would be out of commission for quite a long period of time—at least several more months—but my suspicions were wrong.  Carnival Triumph is scheduled to resume full-time, year-round service in just a few days.

According to Carnival’s website, the ship is expected to leave Galveston, Texas on June 17th for its first cruise since the February incident.  The ship will be running four and five-day cruises to Cozumel and Progresso, Mexico.  Having cancelled four months’ worth of cruises, Carnival could no longer afford for the Triumph to be out of water.  The summer season is the most lucrative time of the year for cruise lines.  As for Grandeur of the Seas, it will be out of commission until mid-July.  Royal Caribbean estimates a loss of roughly $22 million, since the cruise cancellations were made in the premium summer season.

Even though Carnival Triumph is up and running again, Carnival must now face certain legal realities.

Despite the fiasco in February, Carnival still describes the Triumph as “the ultimate in relaxation” and has no plans to change the name of the vessel.  Although the Triumph may have once lived up to its name, passengers on board the infamous February cruise would likely beg to differ.

The catastrophe on board Carnival Triumph horrified some consumers.  Carnival bookings fell by double digits in the days following the engine fire.  Bargain travelers searching for reduced fares have found the event advantageous to their wallets.  With the Triumph receiving so much negative media attention and bookings hitting a new low, Carnival was forced to offer promotions.

Even though Carnival Triumph is up and running again, Carnival must now face certain legal realities.  Following the February incident, a lawsuit was filed in federal district court in Miami, Florida, seeking class action status for more than 3,000 passengers.  Matt and Melissa Crusan, who are representing the class of plaintiffs, requested that Carnival be held liable for physical and emotional anguish inflicted on the passengers, as well as punitive damages.

Passengers claim that Carnival’s contract provision should be waived because of Carnival’s negligence in letting the ship sail with mechanical issues.

In response, Carnival filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that its tickets clearly state that passengers cannot file class actions against the cruise line.  Carnival’s contract includes the following provision: “Carnival shall not be liable to the passenger for damages for emotional distress, mental suffering/anguish or psychological injury of any kind under any circumstances, except when such damages were caused by the negligence of Carnival and resulted from the same passenger sustaining actual physical injury…”

Passengers claim that Carnival’s contract provision should be waived because of Carnival’s negligence in letting the ship sail with mechanical issues.  However, Carnival’s contract also stipulates that passengers must sustain some type of actual physical injury for Carnival to be held liable for mental, emotional, or psychological injuries.  These provisions, which many passengers might not have known existed when they purchased their tickets, may pose a significant obstacle to relief for the claimants’ appalling experience.

Attorneys for the Crusans have responded to Carnival’s motion to dismiss, arguing in their brief that it is “premature” to introduce a class action waiver in a motion to dismiss and that Carnival’s passenger ticket class action waiver is void, among other issues.  To date, there have been no reports of passengers having filed lawsuits against Royal Caribbean for the May 27th incident.  Unlike Carnival Triumph, Grandeur of the Seas was not stuck at sea, and passengers did not experience unsanitary conditions.

 The Cruise Ship Passenger Bill of Rights would give passengers the right to disembark at port if a ship was unable to provide basic provisions, like working toilets.

At this point, it is hard to determine how the Court will rule on the class action lawsuit.  Regardless of the decision, future passengers may be able to breathe a little easier.  Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is leading a movement to pass a Cruise Ship Passenger Bill of Rights.  Shumer’s plan is twofold: the cruise industry should accept the bill’s guidelines on its own, and the Secretary of State and the International Maritime Organization should investigate the recurring problems of international cruise ships that transport United States passengers.  Importantly, a Cruise Ship Passenger Bill of Rights adopted by the Cruise Lines International Association, an organization representing many major cruise lines, would give passengers the right to disembark at port if a ship was unable to provide basic provisions, like working toilets.

Passengers would also have the right to a full refund for a trip that is abruptly cancelled due to mechanical failures, the right to on-board professional medical attention in the event of a major health crisis, and the right to backup power in the case of generator failures.  The Cruise Ship Passenger Bill of Rights is modeled after the successful Passenger Bill of Rights for Airplanes.  Although legislators cannot prevent engine fires and other failures from occurring, they can provide options for passengers stranded at sea for extended periods of time.  More importantly, legislators can provide some peace of mind that a passenger’s rights do not end once he or she boards the ship.

Jaclyn Murphy, Senior Staff Writer
About Jaclyn Murphy, Senior Staff Writer (13 Articles)
Jaclyn Murphy served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from the University of Virginia in 2008. Before pursuing law school, Jaclyn worked as a paralegal for The Lex Group in Richmond, Virginia. During law school, Jaclyn worked as a Research Assistant for Professor Patrick Hetrick, as an intern in the Medicaid and Social Services Division of the Virginia Attorney General's Office, as the pro bono extern at Everett Gaskins Hancock LLP and as an intern at Gordon, Dodson, Gordon & Rowlett in Chesterfield, Virginia. She graduated from Campbell Law School in May 2014.
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