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Cruise Passenger Rights Are (Slowly) Improving

SmarterTravel

Until recently, the phrase “cruise passenger rights” was a bit of an oxymoron. But that situation is finally getting better, says Judge Thomas Dickerson in the latest issue of his The Cruise Passenger’s Rights and Remedies series of legal papers. Cruise contracts remain among the most one-sided you’ll ever accept, but at least the cruise lines can no longer hide behind all of the fine print.

The most notable recent change has been in the treatment of cruise line liability for malpractice or negligence by shipboard medical personnel. As recently as 2014, courts generally enforced contracts that limited cruise line liability on the basis that shipboard medical personnel are independent contractors. In a more recent case, however, a U.S. Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision denying the right of a deceased passenger’s estate to sue a cruise line. Instead, the court noted “we must now acknowledge that medical professionals routinely work for corporate masters.” It noted further, “We would no longer consider the nurse and doctor to be independent contractors simply because that is what the cruise line calls them.” In effect, the Court of Appeals applied a simple “duck” test: If it quacks like a duck and if it waddles like a duck…

Recent court decisions have also held cruise lines to tighter standards of control over outfits they use for shore excursions. Although these outfits are certainly contractors to cruise lines, rather than employees, the lines have a responsibility to vet their contractors thoroughly, making sure they follow safe practices and maintain adequate liability insurance coverage. Thus, the estate of a passenger killed as a bystander in a gunfight during a gang shoot-out could sue on the basis that the shore excursion operator scheduled its tour to pass through an area of known gang violence in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Judge Dickerson notes, however, that recent favorable developments still leave cruise passengers on the short end of one-sided contracts. Courts still often enforce contract provisions limiting the venues in which passengers can bring suit to locations that are often extremely inconvenient. They also enforce provisions requiring that disputes be settled by arbitration rather than in courts. Unfortunately, lack of consistency among various court decisions makes it really difficult for travelers to know what their rights actually are.

A few years back, the big cruise lines, through their trade association (Cruise Lines International Association) issued a Cruise Industry Passenger Bill of Rights. The promised rights include:

  • To disembark a docked ship if essential provisions such as food, water, restroom facilities, and access to medical care cannot adequately be provided onboard.
  • A full refund for a trip that is canceled due to mechanical failures, or a partial refund for voyages that are terminated early due to those failures.
  • Full-time, professional emergency medical attention, as needed until shore side medical care becomes available.
  • Timely information updates as to any adjustments in the itinerary of the ship in the event of a mechanical failure or emergency.
  • A properly trained ship crew for emergencies.
  • An emergency power source in the case of a generator failure.
  • Transportation to the ship’s scheduled port of disembarkation or the passenger’s home city in the event a cruise is terminated early due to mechanical failures.
  • Lodging for an overnight stay if the ship cannot accommodate passengers adequately.

But there’s one glaring problem: Unlike the case of airline rights, this “bill” does not specify any specific compensation if a cruise line fails to provide the right. If an airline bumps you, Department of Transportation rules require airlines to compensate you, and it fines airlines that keep you on the tarmac longer than the standard three or four hours. Some cruise lines even incorporate these rights into their contracts, but again with no provisions for “what happens if we don’t.”

So if you’re taking a cruise, enjoy it and have a great time. But if something goes wrong, you’ll still have a tough time getting a satisfactory solution, even if your rights are slowly improving.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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