The horrific accident involving the Costa Concordia, which struck a reef and sank off the Italian island of Giorgio, presents an occasion for us to consider what legal rights you have when vacationing at sea.
Let's start with the most basic question – what law applies?
When you visit a restaurant here in town, the facility is regulated by a whole series of federal, state and local laws and regulations governing, for example, equal access for disabled persons and food quality. If you suffer an injury while walking through the dining room, Massachusetts common law allows you to sue the restaurant operator for negligence in a court near to your home. If you prove you have suffered an injury, there is no statute that limits the amount of money you can recover.
When you are on a cruise ship, the rules can be quite different. Most contracts between passengers and cruise ship operators contain clauses that significantly impact, and in some cases limit, the passenger's ability to recover damages.
For example, the contract may contain a "forum selection clause" which provides that any lawsuits against the cruise ship operator must be brought in a particular state or country. Such a clause might prevent you from suing the operator here in Massachusetts.
Similarly, the contract may set a limit on the amount of damages you may recover from the operator, no matter how negligent it may have been. Knowing such a clause exists, you might decide that the time, expense and inconvenience associated with bringing a case in a foreign court might not be worth it.
Some cruise ship contracts have provisions that prevent you from bringing a claim against them for acts committed by other passengers. Some passengers have been assaulted, or been robbed, only to learn that the cruise line operator bears no responsibility under the contract to provide any compensation.
Finally, even if you suffer harm for which the cruise ship operator is responsible, the contract may require that you assert the claim within a short period of time – for example, six months. Courts have ruled that these notice-requirement clauses are enforceable.
The fact is, agreements between passengers and cruise ship operators are generally not negotiable. If you book a cruise, you are likely to be presented with a contract several pages long, which you will sign without reading first.
Here are some practical tips for making sure you minimize your risk.
One, be smart. Do not bring valuables onto the ship. Leave the expensive camera at home and bring instead a small, pocket digital. Do not leave valuables such as handheld music players lying around while you sunbathe or hit the buffet table. Do not assume that goods left in your room are secure.
Two, consider whether you can insure yourself against the risks. Make sure that your health insurance carrier covers you for the cost of any treatment you receive while on board. Contact your homeowners' carrier and find out what coverage you might have for onboard theft. Consider acquiring travel insurance to cover any extraordinary costs you may suffer while on your vacation.
Finally, if something does occur while on board, make sure you obtain the names, addresses and contact information of any witnesses before leaving this ship, and make sure that appropriate onboard personnel are notified of your complaint. Seek legal counsel immediately when you return home. You want to make sure that you comply with any notice requirement clauses that might apply.
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