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Cruise Law

 Maritime Cases and Discussion of Legal Rights

Discussion of maritime cases and legal issues 
regarding passengers and crew employees

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What Is The "Passenger Ticket" and Why Should I Care?

Many passengers fail to appreciate that their passenger ticket contains not only their itinerary, but constitutes the legally binding "contract of carriage" with the cruise line.

All passenger tickets contain provisions which passengers must read and understand in order to protect their legal rights after they have been injured during a cruise.

The tickets always contain certain pre-conditions to filing suit, such as requiring passengers to notify the cruise line in writing of their intent to assert a claim. This time period is always very short - usually six months for personal injuries.  If you fail to send a letter to the cruise line within this period, and then find out that your injury is more serious than you realized, you are out of luck.

The tickets also contain a very short limitations period in which the lawsuit must be filed (usually one year), whereas the typical statute of limitations in Florida for personal injuries is four years.  The cruise lines also require that passenger lawsuits must be filed in a certain state or city, often Miami, Florida, even though the passenger purchased the ticket in another state or lives thousands of miles away in a foreign country. These contractual requirements are usually considered by the courts to be valid.

It is very important for passengers to carefully read all of the ticket language, and to properly assert their claims within the strict limitations contained in the ticket. 

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What Rights Does The Passenger Ticket Provide Me?

The ticket is filled with disclaimers, limitations, and restrictions in favor of the cruise line - but it contains virtually no statement of the rights of passengers. For example, there is no mention of the duties owed by the cruise lines to passengers, or the legal remedies available to fare paying passengers if they are injured on the cruise ship. Indeed, in reading the ticket, a passenger unfamiliar with maritime law may conclude that he or she have no contractual rights whatsoever. This is incorrect.

In Nadeau v. Costley, 634 So. 2d 649 (Fla. 4th DCA 1994), the Fourth District Court of Appeal rejected a cruise line’s argument that the only theory of liability available to an injured passenger is negligence. The Court held that "... early maritime cases clearly recognize a breach of contract action against the carrier." 634 So.2d at 653 This holding is consistent with the well established rule that all passenger contracts have certain implied duties of reasonable care owed to passengers. Pacific S.S. Co. v. Sutton, 7 F2.d 579 (9th Cir. 1925).

In Carlisle v Ulysses Line Ltd., 475 So. 2d 248 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1985), the Third District Court of Appeal in Florida held that negligence by a cruise line constitutes a breach of the contract of carriage. In other words, a cruise line owes all passengers the duty of acting reasonably and not causing them harm. If the cruise line acts unreasonably and injures you, it has failed to meet its obligation of using reasonable care which is implied by law in the passenger ticket.

The Third District’s holding in Carlisle is consistent with Florida law regarding this issue. Colhoun v. Greyhound Lines, Inc., 265 So.2d 18 (Fla.1972); Butts v. County of Dade, 178 So.2d 592, 593 (Fla. 3d DCA 1965). Florida law, in turn, is consistent with maritime cases since the turn of the century. The Steamship City of Panama v. Phelps, 101 U.S. 453, 463, 25 L.Ed. 1061, 1065 (1880); Silverman v. Bermuda & West Indies S.S. Co., 74 F.2d 683 (2d Cir.1935).

Florida law also recognizes a breach of contract action against a cruise line when the cause of action is predicated upon a wrongful intentional act (such as a physical assault or a sexual battery) by a member of the ship's crew on passengers. Nadeau v. Costley, 634 So. 2d 649 (Fla. 4th DCA 1994); Commodore Cruise Line, Ltd. v. Kormendi, 344 So.2d 896 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1977), cert. denied, 352 So.2d 172 (Fla.1977). All of these cases establish that passenger contracts contain implied duties of reasonable care owed to passengers.

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The Cruise Lines' Response?

Many cruise lines attempt to avoid their contractual obligations to passengers by moving to dismiss the passenger's breach of contract claims once suit is filed.  The usual tactic is for the cruise line to refer to the case of Hass v. Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc., 1986 A.M.C. 1846 (S.D. Fla. 1986) for the proposition that passengers cannot seek compensation for breach of contract.  It is important for passengers or attorneys not familiar with maritime law to be prepared for this argument. 

The Court in Hass entertained an unopposed  motion for summary judgment.  In other words, the passenger's attorney did not even object to the cruise line's argument!  Moreover, the Court never held that a passenger cannot sue for breach of contract. The Court’s language was quite specific, holding that a passenger could not allege a "guarantee of safe passage" unless such language promising such a specific "guarantee" was found in the contract.

It appears that the passenger's attorney in Hass was attempting to argue a hybrid theory of unseaworthiness/breach of contract.  The doctrine of unseaworthiness, of course, is a theory of liability reserved for maritime employees, not passengers, against the owner or operator of a vessel on which they work.

In Hass, there was also no indication that the passenger sued for implied breach of contract due to the cruise lines’s failure to use reasonable care, which exists in all passenger contracts. In addition, the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal in Nadeau v. Costley, 634 So. 2d 649 (Fla. 4th DCA 1994), expressly rejected this case as inconsistent with the case law of Florida and other jurisdictions which hold that passenger tickets contain an implied duty of care.

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Things to Remember

The conclusions from this month's topic? 

If you are a passenger injured on a cruise ship, read your ticket carefully. Be sure to comply with all of the legal requirements listed therein, particularly the short notice and filing provisions.

If you lost or misplaced your ticket, ask the cruise line's risk management department to mail or fax you a copy of all of the language on their standard ticket.

You must send a letter to the cruise line shortly after the cruise (usually within six months), advising the cruise line that you intend to assert a claim for your injuries.   If you decide not to file suit, there is no obligation to proceed - all you have lost is a thirty-three cent stamp. But if you fail to send the letter timely, you have lost all of your legal rights.  Suit must be filed within one year of your  injury.

If you file suit, remember that the cruise line owes you the implied contractual duty of reasonable care - meaning no unreasonable dangers such as slippery decks, defective ladders, contaminated food or beverages, or assaults by crew members.

And don't be surprised - or let the Judge be fooled - when the cruise line brings a copy of the Hass case to court and asks the Judge to throw your case out!  

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