After stepping off the crippled Carnival Splendor on Thursday in San Diego, passenger Brian van Leeuwen had just one mission in mind — chewing, not suing.
“We’re on our way to a burger place because we haven’t had hot food in three days,” said van Leeuwen, who’d been stranded since Monday with his newlywed wife, Candice, and 3,000 other travelers. Among their meals this week was a makeshift casserole of hot dogs, fruit and chopped vegetables. As passengers munched the odd mixture, talk of litigation did season some dinner conversations.
“There was mention of class-action lawsuit on occasion, but it was all just whimsical,” said van Leeuwen, who lives in Moreno Valley, Calif.
“They gave us our money back. They gave us free beer. The crew was in good spirits and helped us with whatever we needed,” he said. “They’re giving us a free cruise at a later date. I’m grateful for that. I’m not the kind of person who’s going to go sue, sue, sue. Not me or my wife.”
Good thing, say travel agents and travel lawyers, because the ticket contracts signed by Carnival Splendor passengers almost assuredly protect the cruise line from future legal action. The vacationers had been living on the 13-story vessel without electricity since Monday when a fire erupted onboard. The lights went out. Food spoiled. And for 14 hours, the toilets didn’t work.
After finally reaching port in San Diego, Carnival fully refunded each passenger, awarded them a free future voyage, and said they would reimburse them for their transportation costs back home. Carnival’s CEO even met the boat at the dock.
The fine print
At Carnival Cruise Line’s media relations office in Miami, a woman answering the phone said Thursday, “at this time, we’re not doing any interviews.” But she asked that any questions be sent via e-mail. In an e-mail to the company, msnbc.com asked if the compensation package received by the Splendor passengers exceeded industry norms when compared to past cases of canceled cruises.
“There aren’t really standardized compensation practices,” Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer De La Cruz responded in an e-mail. “It just varies depending on the nature of the situation. A full refund and a free future cruise (were) definitely warranted in this case.”
But if some passengers are still mulling a call to a lawyer, they should probably check their ticket contracts. In the fine print, the contract reads: “If the performance of the proposed voyage is hindered or prevented by ... breakdown of the vessel ... Carnival may cancel the proposed voyage without liability to refund passage money or fares paid in advance.”
Does that language allow any legal wiggle room for passengers who may feel the refunds failed to make up for ruined vacations?
“Probably not,” said Paul Ruden, senior vice president for legal and industry affairs for the American Society of Travel Agents. “There’s no guarantee one way or the other, but the cruise contract is the same as the contract of carriage in air transposition. For everyone in the cruise world, it’s a must that passengers have expressly accepted the terms.
“There was a fire on board. I’m pretty certain that kind of unforeseen, unavoidable, unexpected event is covered by the contract,” Ruden said. “And I’m certain they’re going to get their money back for the cruise that they didn’t get to take — and hopefully something else to help them make them feel better.”
If any passengers ultimately choose to sue, they must do so at the U.S. District Court in Miami, their ticket contract states. What’s more, “guests” of Carnival must agree that if litigation is desired, they must file their case as an individual “and not as a member of any class of as part of a class action.”
“I’m sure some lawyer out there can say you can’t have (such) a provision that overrides the law,” Ruden said, “but people waive their rights to law all the time.”
'Better compensation packages'
In almost all cruise line brochures, including Carnival’s, there is a disclaimer that also informs customers that “itinerary changes sometimes become necessary for safety, weather or other reasons."
That single line, “pretty much eliminates any recourse for the cruise passenger,” said JoAnne Kochneff, president of Travel By Gagnon, in Grand Rapids, Mich. In general, “the cruise lines' legalese really gets them off the hook for every problem.”
But Kochneff added: “From what I've seen, Carnival has done the best they could under the circumstances.”
On Thursday, at the annual convention of cruise planners in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the fate of the stricken ship dominated all hallway chatter, said Anthony Klang, owner of Cruise Planners, based in Portland, Ore.
“It’s definitely underscoring everything else that’s happening here. Strangely enough, Carnival was our lunch sponsor today,” Klang said. “People are asking each other: ‘Do you have a client on board? Does anyone here have a client on board?’ I’m sure there’s someone here who had clients on the ship.”
When other cruises lines have suffered past mechanical breakdowns, forcing canceled trips and early dockings at unplanned ports, the standard course is to reimburse passengers their fare and offer 25 percent off future cruises, Klang said.
For Splendor passengers, Carnival's offer was much more generous.
“This is one of the better compensation packages you’ll see,” Klang said. “I was actually really pleased to see that.”