The recent sinking of the Costa Concordia off the Isle of Giglio has put a harsh spotlight on standard cruise ship contracts. These contracts are drafted to protect the cruise ship owners and the cruise ship industry, not the cruise ship passengers. A vacation on a cruise ship is like visiting a foreign country with no United States embassy to protect your rights. Before you purchase your ticket you should understand what rights you will have when you get onboard the ship and what rights you are giving up.
1. Before you purchase a cruise ship ticket. Ask your travel agent to provide you with a complete copy of your "Cruise Ticket Contract." If the cruise liner has a website, you may also be able to download the contract.
2. Your ticket is a binding contract. As a practical matter, unless you are a law student or a lawyer with too much time on your hands, no one reads a Cruise Ticket Contract. Although most passengers do not read or sign the Cruise Ticket Contract and although the terms are "nonnegotiable," the majority of the courts in the United States have held that these tickets are in fact binding contracts. By purchasing the ticket and stepping onboard the ship you may have unknowingly agreed to give up some very substantial legal rights. Therefore, before you decide to purchase the tickets, you should read the contract.
3. Buy insurance for your personal property. Many cruise liners specify that if your personal property is lost, stolen or damaged, the cruise line's liability is limited to $150.00. Therefore, before you go onboard, contact your insurance agent to make sure you have adequate insurance to cover the loss of your luggage, clothing, jewelry, personal computers and other items of personal property.
4. Beware that you are giving up your right to privacy. The Cruise Ticket Contract specifies: "passenger agrees and consents to a search being made of the passenger's person, baggage and stateroom." The right to search is not limited to an initial search upon boarding. Furthermore, most tickets specify that the cruise line has the right to take your picture and to use the photographs for any purpose.
5. Cleanliness. A cruise ship is a "floating island." You do not want to be confined on a cruise ship that does not take every step to ensure a clean and safe ship. Fortunately, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) publishes a summary of sanitation inspections of international cruise ships ("Green Sheets"). Before choosing a cruise line you can check the vessel's score for cleanliness and sanitation. www.cdc.gov/travel (Air and Cruise Ship Travel)
6. Medical care. Before you select a cruise line, check out the qualifications of the ship's physician and ask about the medical facilities available on the ship. Newer ships tend to have the more up-to-date medical facilities. The cruise contract specifies that the ship owner has no responsibility for the medical care and treatment provided by the doctor and the contract specifies that you are financially responsible for medical care. Before going on your trip, check with your health insurer to be certain that you have health insurance coverage for treatment onboard the ship. If your insurer does not provide coverage, you should purchase supplemental health insurance.
7. Assumption of the risk. Most cruise contracts specify that the ship owner is not responsible for any injuries you sustain as a result of any unsafe or defective fitness equipment on the ship. Passengers assume all risks related to any onboard recreational activities.
8. General safety. Most cruise contracts specify that the ship owner is not responsible for any injuries or losses you sustain as a result of criminal activity. Many international cruise ships do not have an adequate and comprehensive safety plan for the thousands of passengers onboard. The ship owner is only responsible if a crime was committed by one of its employees. Remember that the safety of your family is your responsibility. Consider using a buddy system and do not allow your children to walk around the ship on their own. If you are the victim of a crime you should report it immediately to the FBI. You can contact FBI headquarters at
202-324-3000 or you can email the Boston office at Boston@ic.fbi.gov
9. Giving up the right to sue. The Costa Concordia case has highlighted the fact that ship owners may have the right to include "choice of forum" clauses in the contracts. The Costa Concordia contract specifies that any lawsuit for death or personal injuries must be filed in Genoa, Italy. These choice of forum clauses and choice of law clauses have been tested in the courts and most courts in the United States will enforce these provisions.
10. Agreeing to a limitation on any award. Many cruise ship contracts take advantage of international law and they may specify that in the event of death or serious injuries, damages will be capped (awards for death or serious injury may be limited to $70,000.00).
11. Forced arbitration. Cruise Ticket Contracts typically specify that for any claims other than death or personal injury, the passengers give up the right to file a lawsuit anywhere! Passengers will be required to submit their disputes to an arbitrator and the arbitrator will be selected by the ship owner.
12. Beware of the short statute of limitations. Many cruise contracts specify that certain claims must be filed within thirty days of leaving the ship. You need to read the contract to find out about these special notice provisions. Most courts in the United States will require passengers to comply with the short notice provisions and require passengers to file any claim within the specified limitation period.
13. Nonnegotiable. Unfortunately, most ship owners will not negotiate any terms of the contract. Some commentators suggest that before you get onboard, you should add the phrase "I do not agree to these terms." However it is likely that you will be stuck with the contract terms as written by the cruise ship's legal staff.
Conclusion. It is likely that your cruise will be the vacation of a lifetime. However, keep in mind the words of New York Supreme Court Justice Thomas A. Dickerson, "A cruise vacation can be a wonderful experience but please don't have an accident and don't get sick and pray you receive all that the cruise brochure and your travel agent promised otherwise you will discover that your rights and remedies as an aggrieved consumer are governed by antiquated legal principals which favor cruise lines to the detriment of cruise passengers."