Nearly a week after the Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground off the coast of Italy, rescue operations may be drawing to a close. At least 11 people were killed in the tragic accident and another 21 remain missing. Everyone on the ship— approximately 3,000 passengers and 1,000 crew members—has suffered as a result of the accident, both physically and emotionally. Over the next several weeks and months, passengers, their families and the cruise line will undoubtedly begin sorting out the legal mess created by this accident. In fact, the website Cruise Critic is already reporting that about 70 passengers have joined a class action lawsuit against Costa.
As the victims of the ship accident seek recovery for their losses—literally ranging from the loss of life to the loss of possessions—one issue will certainly be whether they signed any rights away when they purchased their passage and boarded the ship. In other words, what did the fine print on their ticket say about the company’s liability, passengers’ ability to recover, and how those disputes will be resolved? And, perhaps most importantly, is that fine print that protects the company’s interests enforceable?
Here’s just a few things that might appear in the fine print that most passengers probably don’t pay attention to:
Disclaimers of liability. Often the fine print will get the passenger to agree that certain types of injuries are simply not the cruise company’s fault. For example, injuries that occur during on-shore excursions.
Limitations of liability. Even for those damages that the passenger might be able to recover, the fine print likely includes some sort of upper limit on the amount of money a passenger can get.
Time limitations on the filing of claims. Most lawsuits have to be filed within a specific time-frame after an alleged injury occurred. In the case of cruise ships, this timeframe is often even shorter than normal—sometimes as little as six months.
Jurisdiction. Jurisdiction basically means where will you be allowed to bring your lawsuit? Cruise companies operate internationally and you can buy a ticket online from your home. But just because you purchased your ticket in your hometown does not necessarily mean that you will be able to bring a lawsuit close to home. Instead, your lawsuit might have to be heard in a major U.S port city where the cruise company is headquartered.
Forum selection clauses. This also is related to the place where a passenger can bring their lawsuit. Regardless of what the law in general says about where you can sue a cruise company, that fine print might actually name a specific city where suits will be heard—making it convenient for the company, but not necessarily for the passenger.
Choice of law clauses. Regardless of the physical location of your lawsuit, the court will have to determine what law governs the case. Again, protecting its interests, the cruise company might put into the small print that the law of the Bahamas or Mexico or Italy or some other country should be used. This means that even if you sue in the United States, you might not get the benefit of U.S. law.
Arbitration and mediation clauses. After an injury that warrants a lawsuit, many people want their day in court. But the fine print may cause problems here as well—forcing the passenger to agree ahead of time that disputes will be resolved not through a jury trial but through arbitration or mediation.
All of these provisions together work to put individual passengers at a significant legal disadvantage compared to the cruise liner. Even before the injury has occurred, the ‘rules of the game’ for resolving a dispute have already been set and on the terms that the cruise company wants. Of course, when an accident does happen, not all of those terms will automatically be upheld—particularly if the accident and injury was caused by extreme negligence or even intentional misconduct on the part of the company.
When passengers step aboard a cruise ship, they are really turning their vacation over to the hands of the cruise liner. In fact, for many people, that is one appealing attribute of cruising: the company coordinates your activities, your meals, your entertainment, your sightseeing, your accommodations, and everything else. But that also means turning over your safety and well-being to the company. And when something goes wrong—whether it’s an unfortunate bout of food poisoning or a frantic, dangerous evacuation because the ship ran aground—questions about liability are sure to arise. When they do, the fine print starts to play an enormous role in the result.