In the past when events occurred on cruise ships, they generally took place on the high seas out of sight of the public and the media. These days, however, everyone has a camera in their cell phone and accordingly, most events are no longer hidden from public view.
With the advent of the social and real time media, pictures and videos taken by passengers literally go viral almost instantaneously. This has resulted in a new era of transparency, which will ultimately result in holding cruise lines more accountable and responsive to their passengers.
In response to the dramatic images taken by passengers enduring the aftermath of the fires aboard the Carnival Triumph and Splendor and the grounding of the Costa Concordia , the cruise industry trade group announced last week that its members had voluntarily adopted a Passenger’s Bill of Rights. Unfortunately for cruise ship passengers this self-laudatory proclamation is largely meaningless window dressing as these so-called “rights” either already exist or are subject to so many qualifications that they are essentially insignificant.
To proclaim that their member cruise lines are being generous and caring by agreeing to refund their passengers full fares when their cruise is canceled due to a mechanical failure (Right No. 2) is disingenuous at best. Are the cruise lines saying they had the right to keep your money even when they canceled your cruise before this proclamation?
Likewise, cruise ships are already required to properly train their crews in emergency and evacuation procedures (Right No. 5) and to have emergency power sources (Right No. 6) under existing Coast Guard, flag state, classification society and international regulations. Similarly, all cruise ships already carry ship’s doctors and nurses (Right No. 3) as a result of either U.S. statute, flag state requirements or the previously adopted American College of Emergency Physicians Cruise Ship Guidelines.
The supposed “right to disembark” a ship which cannot provide basic necessities such as “food [and] water” (Right No. 1) does not have any effect when ships are dead in the water on the high seas, as in the case of the recent Carnival Triumph and Splendor fires, unless you have your own personal helicopter to pick you up. Even when the ship is in port, the right to disembark is subject to the limitations and restrictions imposed by the port state’s immigration authorities and the discretion of the captain.
Perhaps the better question is why would a cruise line want to imprison its passengers on a ship without power and the ability to provide food, water, and sanitation facilities, rather than let them go ashore?
Not only are these so-called “rights” largely meaningless from a practical standpoint, but they are also designed to distract attention from the real problems that cruise ship passengers face as consumers. Cruise ship tickets and other documents that passengers are required to sign during cruises contain many fine print provisions, which are designed to take away their basic rights when they are injured or killed during the course of a cruise as a result of the negligence of the cruise line, its agents, partners and joint venturers.
Although Congress has specifically tackled and outlawed some of these tactics, it has not addressed others, which have received mixed treatment from the courts in the absence of such direct Congressional guidance.
For example, most passengers are shocked to discover that the cruise lines typically insert a clause in tickets on European, Asian and South American itineraries, which seek to limit their right to recover damages, even in the case of death or catastrophic injury, to a fluctuating international monetary scale, which is equivalent to approximately $70,000. Tickets also sometimes require suit to be filed in foreign countries, most notably Italy in the case of the Costa Concordia, even when the ticket was purchased in the United States, the passenger is an American citizen and the cruise line maintains considerable domestic business operations.
These are just a few of the ploys designed to insulate the cruise lines and their business partners from legal responsibility for their negligence. In order for there to be meaningful reform and consumer protection in the cruise industry, these are the types of problems which must be addressed — not the illusory problems found in the CLIA Passenger Bill of Rights.
Robert Peltz is an attorney at the Miami-based law firm of Leesfield & Partners and chairman of the Maritime Law Association.