IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Carnival has limited liability for ‘nightmare’ cruise

Image: Red bag special
Veronica Arriaga, of Angleton, Texas, a passenger from the disabled Carnival Triumph cruise ship, holds a sign referring to the red biohazard bags used as toilets, after arriving by bus at the Hilton Riverside Hotel in New Orleans, Friday, Feb. 15, 2013.Gerald Herbert / AP

What does a cruise line owe you when your dream vacation turns into a nightmare? As passengers who were trapped aboard the ill-fated Carnival Triumph for five days earlier this month are going to learn – it’s not very much.

The cruise line has very limited liability even when things go terribly wrong. This is all spelled out in the ticket contract.

“The Carnival passenger contract is standard,” said Steve Danishek, a travel industry analyst based in Seattle. “They protect the cruise lines from all sorts of liability and make it incredibly difficult for a passenger to take any legal action against them.”

Carnival’s ticket contract specifically bans class action lawsuits.

“All disputes other than personal injury, illness or death must go through arbitration and they get to choose the arbitration company,” said Professor Martin Davies, director of the Tulane Maritime Law Center. “That means if your claim is simply, ‘you ruined my vacation,’ then this has to go to arbitration.”

And that arbitration hearing will be in Miami, where Carnival is headquartered. This may discourage people from going this route, but experts tell NBC News it’s perfectly legal.

A Miami law firm that specializes in maritime cases has filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Florida against Carnival Corp. on behalf of all of the passengers on board the Carnival Triumph during its fateful cruise earlier this month.

The suit alleges Carnival was negligent because it allowed hazardous conditions “to exist on its vessel which it knew or should have known was likely to cause injury, harm and damages to its passengers.”

The class action complaint claims passengers were given “spoiled or rotting food that was unfit for reasonable safe human consumption, and were generally forced to live in squalid conditions that created a severe risk of injury, illness and/or disease.” The lawsuit alleged that the “unbearable” conditions “caused numerous passengers to vomit and/or become nauseous.”

The suit specifically asks the court to rule Carnival’s ban on class action claims to be null and void in this case because of the cruise line’s alleged negligence.

Carnival’s public relations manager, Aly Bello-Cabreriza, said the company cannot comment on pending litigation.

University of Washington Law Professor Anita Ramasastry said it will be an uphill battle for the passengers who file lawsuits.

“There is a chance a court would say that the arbitration clause and the class action waiver are unconscionable, especially for people who got sick because of the conditions on the ship,” she said. “But that’s unlikely when you look at what’s been done in other cases.”

Compensation for a lousy cruise
Carnival says it will give all of the 3,000 Triumph passengers a refund for their trip and transportation expenses. Everyone will also get $500 and a future cruise credit equal to what they paid to be on the ship.

In a statement on its website, the company also promised to reimburse everyone for all shipboard purchases made during the voyage, except gift shop and casino charges or art purchases.

This may not be enough to appease the angry passengers, but it is significantly more than the company was required to do for them based on the contract. According to clause 7(c):

“Carnival has the right without previous notice to cancel this contract at the port of embarkation or any time during the voyage and shall thereupon return to the Guest, if the Contract is completely canceled, his passage money, or, if the Contract is partially canceled, a proportionate part thereof. Under such circumstances, Carnival shall have no further liability for damages or compensation of any kind.

“Carnival could have pulled the ship to the nearest port, gotten everybody off and that would have been it,” Danishek explained. “They would have owed nothing but a partial refund because they would have performed to the terms of the contract.”

Very few people read the contract they get when buy a ticket on a boat, plane or train or rent a car. These companies all have tightly written contracts that are designed to protect them from you.


Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.