* Cruise ship tickets come with lengthy contracts
* Passengers sign away privacy, other rights
* Liability limits are low; luggage tops at $50
By Linda Stern
WASHINGTON, Jan 17 (Reuters) - It's all fun and
margaritas when you first book a cruise. But that "ticket" is
actually a contract that can run more than a dozen pages, and
gives away more rights to the cruise ship company than you may
"People will buy the ticket without knowing this, and they
won't even look at it before they step on the cruise ship," said
Joseph Goldberg, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based consumer
attorney who reviewed the ticket contract posted on the Carnival
Cruise Lines website (http://www.carnival.com/cms/static_templates/ticket_contract.aspx)
Carnival dominates about half of the cruise market and its
contract, which runs almost 8,000 words and mentions "liability"
20 times, could be considered typical for the industry.
"It's not until something does happen that you find out how
stuck you are," Goldberg said.
Something did happen, of course. The Costa Concordia,
operated by a company owned by Miami-based Carnival, ran aground
in Italian waters on Friday, leaving at least 11 passengers dead
and some 24 more missing. That was an extreme and unusual event,
likely to have lawyers fighting for years over the various and
sometimes contradictory laws, agreements and contracts that may
come into play, according to Lewis "Mike" Eidson, a Miami trial
lawyer who specializes in representing cruise passengers.
He said he expects to represent Costa Concordia passengers
and crew members, and that he will argue that the usual
contractual limitations shouldn't apply, because the particulars
of this case were so extreme.
But anyone thinking of a nice mid-winter cruise should
consider those limitations anyway. If you know what you're
signing away, you may be able to protect yourself in the event
of lesser tragedies, like lost luggage or a minor injury.
Here are seven rights you sign away when you buy a cruise
* The right to privacy. When you sign the Carnival contract,
you give the company the right "at all times with or without
notice" to search your bags and personal effects. That's so they
can make sure you're not smuggling any firearms, explosives or
bourbon (that you didn't buy at their bar) onto the ship.
Furthermore, that contract gives Carnival the right to use
pictures and videos of you any way they want. You may not want
your office buddies seeing pictures of you in a bathing suit,
but that image could make its way into a commercial, without
Carnival paying you or getting any additional release signed by
* The right to show off your pictures. Just because Carnival
reserves the rights to your pictures doesn't mean you can use
them yourself, says Goldberg. While the company is unlikely to
complain if you adorn your Facebook page with deck pics,
passengers who use the tickets do agree that they "will not
utilize any photographs ... for non-private use without express
written consent of Carnival." So much for that travel blog you
wanted to publish.
* The right to be repaid if your jewelry gets stolen or your
luggage gets accidentally dropped in the Caribbean. The ticket
contract limits the company's liability for lost or damaged bags
and their contents to $50 per guest or $100 per stateroom. If
your items are worth much more than that, you can buy added
coverage by declaring the value of what you are bringing onto
the ship and paying 5 percent of its value.
If you're bringing expensive jewelry or other items on
board, make a written list of the value, pay the 5 percent and
make sure the crew gets a copy of that list, says Goldberg.
* The right to count on that vacation. Carnival can cancel
any cruise at any time, according to the contract. It will owe
you a refund if the cruise is completely cancelled, or a partial
refund if the company changes its mind and leaves you at some
port along the way. There's no additional refund in the contract
for airfare home. And if you cancel within two weeks of booking?
You'll most likely owe full fare anyway, under the contract.
* The right to sue when and where you want. Like most
consumer legal contracts these days, the Carnival ticket
contract includes an arbitration clause that requires you to
submit claims for lost luggage and the like to binding
arbitration in Miami-Dade County, Florida. If you do want to
file suit for a personal injury, you would be required to do
that in the U.S. Federal District Court in Miami.
Furthermore, there are lawsuit deadlines in cruise contracts
that many attorneys and passengers aren't even aware of, said
Eidson. The contract requires injured parties to notify Carnival
within six months and file suit within a year. "The biggest
claim in the world could be defeated if you don't file your
claim within the year," he said.
* The right to ask for sizeable punitive damages. There are
two different kinds of ticket contracts, says Eidson: Domestic
ones, which do not cap liability, and international contracts,
such as the ones the passengers of the Costa Concordia likely
agreed to when they boarded their ship. That contract is subject
to an international agreement called the "Athens Convention,"
which limits liability to about $80,000, according to legal
experts. Because of the egregious nature of this case, lawyers
like Eidson will seek to blow through those limits by claiming
the ship's owners and operators were reckless.
* The right to be legitimately upset. What if you're
traumatized by your cruise? Not because the raw bar ran out of
shrimp or those margaritas were watery, but because a loved one
was injured or killed on the ship. Unless you personally were at
risk for the same injury (as would likely be the case in a
disaster like the Costa Concordia's accident), you probably
waived your right to claim emotional distress in the contract.
You could try to take another cruise to calm yourself down, but
you might want to bring your lawyer.
(Reporting By Linda Stern; Editing by Walden Siew, Gary Hill)
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