The lawsuits from angry passengers are mounting up against Carnival Cruise Lines, all of which seek financial redress for mental and physical trauma caused by 5 days of unsanitary conditions onboard. Though no one was hurt, Carnival Triumph passengers had to endure long waits for food, deal with broken toilets, and do without hot water for almost a week—turning what would have been a dream vacation into an all too-real nightmare. Some horrified vacationers reported extreme conditions, claiming that human waste had flooded the floors, including the state rooms.
The Mississippi based maritime law firm of John Arthur Eaves is the latest to file suit against Carnival, which was filed in Galveston TX. Meanwhile, a Miami maritime law firm has filed a proposed class action lawsuit in a Miami federal court in an attempt to establish a higher level of accountability for the cruise company.
Unfortunately, the plaintiffs’ chances of obtaining legal redress and compensation through the court system is highly unlikely. According to Nova Southeastern University maritime law professor Bob Jarvis, the chances of winning these types of lawsuits are “Zero, zilch, zip, nada, not happening, not in this lifetime…Maritime law is very much on the side of the ship owner.”
The trouble began when an engine room fire broke out in the morning of February 10. Though automatic suppression systems quickly extinguished the blaze, the resulting damage immobilized the vessel’s propulsion, forcing it to run on inadequate emergency backup power.
Seatrade Insider reported that a boat carrying 11 technical and guest service specialists never reached the Triumph, which was confirmed by Carnival Cruise Lines.
“Between the sea conditions and the pace at which the Carnival Triumph was rapidly drifting north, the smaller vessel ultimately had to return to shore due to fuel concerns,” Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz confirmed. “The purpose was to lend additional support to the shipboard team but unfortunately the group was not able to reach the ship.”
With the aid of tug boats, the Triumph finally docked in Mobile, AL on Valentine’s Day, much to the relief of the ship’s 4,229 passengers.
The proposed class action complaint filed by the Miami maritime law firm Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, alleges that Carnival Cruises Lines was negligent about the ship’s fitness for sailing. The lawsuit claims that the company should have known that the ship would have engine problems due to previous propulsion issues, and that it cut corners by having the ship towed to Alabama instead of a closer port in Mexico, prolonging the agony and trauma endured by the unfortunate cruise passengers, stating: “Carnival recklessly and intentionally put more than 3,000 passengers through a five-day living nightmare so it could protect its bottom line.”
In its defense, Carnival denies that the decision to tow the Triumph to Alabama had anything to do with cost cutting and expedience. According to the Miami-based cruise line, the Triumph was already drifting north away from Mexico due to strong currents, so it made sense to tow the boat to Alabama.
Regardless of the merits of the lawsuits and the all-too real suffering and emotional trauma endured by the unlucky vacationers, maritime law overwhelmingly favors cruise lines. As they say, the devil is in the details – in this case, it’s the fine print on the cruise ticket that serves as a legally binding contract. The terms on the ticket dictates who can sue, and where lawsuits can be filed – which severely limits an aggrieved passenger’s ability to get justice through the court system.
"If the ship breaks down, consumers are dependent on the goodwill of the cruise lines, which drafted iron-tight terms and conditions which protect them from virtually all bad experiences," explained notable Miami maritime attorney and maritime law blogger Jim Walker.
All tickets issued by Carnival Cruise Lines specify that any lawsuit against the company must be filed in South Florida federal courts, since the company’s headquarters are located in Miami. This can be problematic for many vacationers, since many of them traveled from all over the country just to take the cruise.
However, it’s not completely hopeless. Many maritime lawyers point out that the plaintiffs can win as long as it is proven that Carnival Cruise Lines was negligent about the ship’s seaworthiness and that the mental trauma was severe enough to merit medical intervention.
"I think there is a good case of liability against Carnival. The issue really comes down to the damages," noted maritime lawyer Robert Peltz.
While negligence can be extremely difficult to prove, the hardships suffered by the passengers have been confirmed by news outlets all over the world. According to the lawsuit filed by Matt and Melissa Crusan of Oklahoma, they feared for their lives and witnessed fellow passengers suffering from insomnia, nausea, headaches, and nightmares. They also claim that the agony and trauma was unnecessarily prolonged when Carnival decided to have the ship towed to Alabama instead of Mexico.
Though the Carnival tickets include a clause that prohibits the filing of class-action lawsuits, the Crusans are arguing that the clause is inapplicable because of the company’s negligence regarding the Triumph’s seaworthiness.
According to maritime lawyers and experts, there are 3 main prerequisites a class action lawsuit must meet to be considered valid:
- Is the class action waiver on the tickets applicable? A judge must evaluate the circumstances and merits of the case before determining the validity of a class action clause. While courts have historically ruled in favor of cruise lines, there are exceptions.
- Is class action status appropriate, considering the varying degrees of illness, trauma, and injury experienced by different people?
- Did the passengers have true cause for concern over their physical and emotional health? Did the passengers need medical intervention as a result of their experience aboard the ship?
If the lawsuits are able to meet these criteria and are not dismissed due to printed ticket restrictions, Carnival could very well choose to settle just to end the negative publicity.
"It’s been my experience that the cruise lines are more concerned about the issues that affect the brand, as they call it," Peltz explained. "It could really affect their bottom line and ability to attract customers."
In the end, maritime legalese can only do so much to win the battle of public opinion. If enough consumers refuse to buy cruise vacations due to the perceived lack of liability and responsibility on the part of the cruise company, it could very well cost Carnival Cruise Lines far more in lost revenue than any successful lawsuit ever could.