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Worried About Norovirus? Know Your Legal Rights for Cruise Travel!

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Two cruise shipsYou’re probably shocked to hear that the cruise ships infected with norovirus last week are back out sailing with new passengers. Yes, they’ve been cleaned and disinfected, but what about the passengers who lost their vacation as well as their lunch? Attorney and legal analyst AnneElise Goetz looks at the standard cruise contract to inspect your rights–and the limits of those rights–if norovirus hits your cruise.

In the last few weeks, the cruising industry was hit with another storm of bad press. Royal Caribbean was forced to end a 10-day cruise after more than 600 people on board contracted norovirus. Then, a few days later, Princess Cruises docked a day and half early on a 7-day cruise after 173 on the ship came down with norovirus symptoms.

Needless to say, if you were a passenger on either of these voyages, you did not receive the travel experience you thought you purchased. And once your stomach settles and your fever breaks, you, like so many cruise passengers before you, will say: “My vacation was ruined, the trip ended early, and I think the cruise company is to blame – so…what am I entitled to?”

Well, I have the answer to that question, although I doubt many of you will like it. Do you remember back when, in the glow of booking your much deserved vacation, you clicked “accept” and agreed to be bound by the terms of the cruising company’s contract?

No one ever does.

So, let’s discuss what you agreed to in that contract. I’m going to speak generally because most of the cruise company contracts contain similar terms (especially as they relate to the passenger’s rights); however, if you want to locate your particular contract, either contact the company or search for the “ticket contract” or “cruising agreement” on their webpage.

Rights of The Sick/Injured Passenger

Double CabinGenerally, under the contract, a passenger waives his/her right to sue unless the cruise company acted “negligently” and the passenger was actually injured as a result.

So what does this mean? It means you have to prove that the cruise company didn’t do something it should have done, or did something that it shouldn’t have done, which resulted in the norovirus outbreak.

If the norovirus outbreak occurred through no fault of the cruising company, then you don’t have a right to damages. Both the Royal Caribbean and Princess Cruises ships are being inspected to determine what caused the outbreak and what caused it to spread so quickly. If it’s found that the cruise company didn’t properly respond to the problem, then you might have a case.

BUT don’t get too excited, because as a sick/injured passenger, you are limited to the actual damages incurred as a result of the illness – so maybe medical bills, the cost of prescriptions, etc. but overall this will be a pretty nominal amount.

The real money comes if you can make a case for damages based on “emotional distress.” These types of damages are harder to come by because you have to prove that you were injured (not an issue if you are sick), but you also have to prove that the cruising company intentionally caused the injury. This is obviously a very hard hurdle to get over, and therefore isn’t used often.

Rights of the Healthy Passenger whose Vacation was Cut Short

Bathroom Signs RantBathroom Signs RantAirport Queue Line standingObviously, I feel for you. Not only did your 10-day cruise suddenly shrink to 8 days, but now you have to pay additional money to stay in a hotel room and pay for meals until your flight takes off two days after your ship docked.

Unfortunately, the cruising contracts are crystal clear on this issue. Passengers waive all rights to damages for an early termination of the cruise. It doesn’t matter whether the cruise ended early because of weather, flu, or fire. If the ship drops you off on day 2 of your 21-day cruise, you can’t be reimbursed for the cost of the cruise or covered for the additional cost of changing all of your travel plans.

Cruise Company Concessions

Despite having waived almost all of your rights under the cruising contract, most companies don’t want the PR nightmare of 1000 unhappy customers. As a result, we tend to see cruise companies offer concessions and payments when they otherwise don’t have to – obviously this is in exchange for an additional wavier of all your rights to sue the company.

Typically, as was the case with the Royal Caribbean cruise that ended early due to norovirus, the company will cover the cost of your lodging until your flight (or pay to change your flight), provide a refund of a portion of the cruise cost, and comp a certain portion of a future cruise.

The concessions are sweeter depending on the nature of the mishap. For example, last year in the Carnival Triumph fiasco, when passengers were stuck in the Gulf of Mexico for 5 days without working plumbing, Carnival covered travel costs, refunded the cost of the trip, comped the next trip, and gave each passenger $500.

Generally speaking, unless you suffered a serious injury or loss on a cruise ship, you are better off taking the concession than trying to fight the cruise company in court. There is a chance you might recover more in court, but it will take you years to collect and you’ll be paying an attorney to fight the cruise company’s team of lawyers.

The obvious exception to this rule would be in the Costa Concordia case where 32 people lost their lives after the ship sank in the Mediterranean. In that case, the survivors and victims will generally collect far more in court than Costa Cruises was willing to offer.

The takeaway here is that you should always read contracts before you agree to the terms. Also, this is the type of vacation where it pays to have travel insurance.

For more cruise safety:

By AnneElise Goetz for PeterGreenberg.com. Visit AnneElise’s website at www.AnneEliseGoetz.com for more legal and life tips.

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