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Recourse for Damages Suffered Overseas

One of the toughest problems in all of travel is recovering compensation for damages caused by a travel supplier located overseas. A reader reported this typical problem:

“A restaurant in Portugal put raw chicken into something I ate there and I got sick. I’m still under medical treatment. How can I get recourse from the restaurant?”

The flip answer is, “With great difficulty.” I know of no easy ways to get such compensation from a foreign-based supplier that does not have some sort of official corporate or business presence in the U.S. Here’s what I know about the problem, based on what I’ve read and asked. But I’m not a lawyer, and anyone who suffered a significant amount of damage and is contemplating any sort of legal action should get the advice of an attorney.

Use What You Have

You probably have insurance that covers at least some of the expenses and losses you might encounter. Your regular health insurance or separate travel insurance should cover direct medical expenses. Many household policies cover out-of-pocket losses from personal property theft, damage, or loss, even when traveling overseas. And accident insurance typically covers death or loss of limbs anywhere, including overseas. But recovering damages from an overseas supplier is a different story.

Big Problems, Big Worries

Obviously, travelers can encounter difficulties anywhere in the world. If they’re minor, most of you usually accept whatever solution or resolution is available on the spot and move on with your trip.

But some problems are far too serious to shrug off easily. A few years back, a staffer with the state attorney general’s office related a tragedy suffered by a resident of his state. A teenage boy, on vacation in Mexico, was horsing around with buddies on the balcony of a small, locally owned hotel. He lost his balance and grabbed onto the nearest support he could find. That turned out to be a bare wire 220-volts circuit, and the boy was instantly electrocuted.

Such an obvious case of negligence on the part of the hotel would have easily led to a large damage award in the U.S. But for a death in Mexico, my attorney friend reluctantly told the boy’s parents that pursuing further legal action would likely be fruitless.

Different Legal Systems

According to what I’ve read, few, if any, other countries employ damage standards as high as those in the U.S. In most other countries:

  • Courts place lower monetary values on life, limbs, future earnings, and other such losses than those in the U.S.
  • Legal damage settlements are likely to be a small fraction of the amounts they would be in the U.S.
  • Negligence is tougher to prove.
  • Even if you do win an award, collecting can be problematic.

Moreover, as in the tragedy related to me about the teenage boy, many U.S. attorneys suspect that foreign courts often exhibit a strong bias against U.S. plaintiffs in suits against local residents.

Other Roadblocks

Beyond differing standards, bringing a lawsuit against a foreign defendant involves such obvious roadblocks as the need to be present at various hearings and a trial, the need to hire local attorneys, coping with possible delays and postponements, and securing evidence from witnesses. You can’t just hire a local lawyer at the time of an event, then return home while the local lawyer handles the entire proceedings. Overall, say the attorneys I’ve talked to, overseas lawsuits are a huge challenge not to be faced lightly.

Look for a U.S. Presence

Your odds of a successful suit improve dramatically if the potential defendant organization has some sort of official business presence in the U.S. In this day of globalization, that means something as simple as a sales office. Or perhaps the foreign company is either a subsidiary or parent of a U.S. corporation. In those cases, as far as I can tell, you can bring suit in a local U.S. court, naming the defendant’s U.S. presence.

See an Attorney

As I noted at the outset, this report is based on what I’ve been able to glean as a layperson. And that’s useful only for general guidance. If you suffer a problem that potentially involves more money than you can easily write off to hard-won experience, contact an attorney. Only an expert can assess your particular situation and best course of action.

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