And you thought that Gilligan had it bad……….your Consumer rights on a cruise

It’s hard to count the number of times we at Consumer Courage have heard friends shout “I’m going on a cruise!”  This excited utterance is then followed up with details about how wonderful the upcoming vacation is going to be.  There is talk of ports-of-call in exotic places, no daily need to pack your bags, island visits with locals, no need for rental cars….hotel rooms….reservations, and there is much talk about food.  Endless buffet tables, multiple dining rooms, giant menus.  Who wouldn’t want to go?  The thought of going on a cruise has always left me feeling a little claustrophobic.  To some, letting another person make all of the plans might be heaven. But, I’m not digging it.  And, after all we’ve read lately about cruises-gone-bad, we at Consumer Courage have started to wonder:

Do consumers have actual rights, if the vacation turns out to be (shall we say) a real stinker?

The short answer: not many. Let’s start by looking at this transaction as though it were a normal consumer transaction.  (meaning to say: what would you be able to do after a nightmare cruise experience, if you had the rights and remedies that you have by virtue of being an Ohio consumer).  

HOW YOU WOULD BE PROTECTED IF OHIO CONSUMER LAW APPLIED

If you purchased a ticket for the cruise from your house in response to an advertisement, the Home Solicitation Sales Act (HSSA)  might apply and you would have three days to cancel the purchase. (for instance, if you bought your ticket and then read about some nasty cruise-gone-bad the next day and decided that maybe it wasn’t a good idea, you could use the HSSA to get a full refund)

(Author’s confession: it would seem that a cruise ticket fits the definition of a consumer good.  It is for ‘personal use,’ after all.  As of the publishing of this post, I have been unable to find a ruling that a cruise ticket is not a consumer good.  For the purposes of this post, just go with me on this point……)

What if the cruise line was crippled by an engine problem that happened before?   You could also sue them under the Consumer Sales Practices Act and argue that:

It was unfair or deceptive for them to sell you a ticket for a ship that had problems;

That the ship was said to have characteristics that it did not possess (a working engine room and safe generator system to prevent plumbing failure, in case there was a fire); 

That you relied on their misrepresentation about the ship’s ability to operate properly ;

It was unfair for them to refuse to give you a refund.  

All the while, you would be able to bring your claims inside the State of Ohio, have a judge (or jury) hear your claims, and be able to have your attorney fees paid, if you won the suit. (not to mention that you could ask the Court to triple the amount of any out-of-pocket expenses that you incurred)   The Consumer Sales Practices Act also lets an Ohio citizen (or the Attorney General) ask the Court to issue an injunction (which is a ruling that the supplier must stop doing whatever they were doing that violated Consumers’ rights, without risking further punishment). 

What if the cruise ship refused to let you off, while they were docked, even though they knew that the plumbing wasn’t working and causing a health hazard?  You could argue that they falsely imprisoned you.  (even if false imprisonment was hard to prove, it would certainly help your argument that whatever else they did was ‘unconscionable’ under the Consumer Sales Practices Act and should lead to an award of some kind)

And what might occur if you figured out that the cruise line KNEW that there was a serious problem with the ship, but were selling tickets anyway?  In Ohio, you could contact the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and have them start an investigation.  The AG could subpoena records from the cruise line, make them show up to their offices in Columbus, bring documents with them and answer pointed questions about their practices.  The Attorney General could even (if there were enough people in Ohio who were angry with the cruise line) schedule a public meeting and force the cruise line executives to testify in front of TV cameras about how they run their (ahem) ships.  You could also ask the Federal Trade Commission to get involved.  Both of these government agencies could levy fines on any cruise ship company and force them to enter into an agreement that promises that they would clean up their acts.

SINCE OHIO LAW DOES NOT APPLY, ARE YOU PROTECTED? 

The situation above would apply in a place that I call HW. (Hypothetical World)  Let’s look at the situation as it is in the world that we ACTUALLY live in.

First, since the overwhelming majority (90%) of Cruise ships are registered in another Country, whether they lived up to their obligations as a supplier of cruise ship tickets depends on the laws of the Country where they are registered. (Here’s a hint: there are virtually no consumer protections in those Countries)

Second, many cruise ship contracts provide that if you sue them, you must do so in the place of their choosing.  If they left from Florida, you usually have to sue them in Miami or some other Florida city.  If the ship had no American stop (such as might happen with Costa, the company that owns the ship that is STILL on its side off the coast of Italy) the contract might specify that you have to sue them, where the ship is registered. (Cost is based in Italy)  No matter how angry you are, it’s a safe bet that you are not going to go to Italy to file a suit against the cruise line.

Third, nearly every cruise ship contract has a standard clause that specifies that any claims that you bring will have to go to binding arbitration.  There are many problems with binding arbitrations in consumer contracts: very little or no pre-hearing ‘discovery’; costs that are sometimes prohibitively expensive; a hearing officer who makes his/her bread & butter by getting repeat business from the company that you are suing; no appeal rights; no rules for how they must decide or how they must weigh the facts, etc.  All of these problems add up to consumers having very few rights.

Fourth, your false imprisonment claim?  No good.  The contracts for cruise ships usually state that once you’re aboard, what the ship’s captain does and says….goes.  They can search you or your room (without probable cause); change your fare, the itinerary of the ship or cancel the cruise altogether, without advanced notice (or keep you on a ship that you want to leave, because they are afraid it will be too hard to get you to get back on board, once it’s OK)

Fifth, even if someone uncovers evidence that the cruise line KNEW that there was a problem, or ignored what happened in the past, neither your State’s Attorney General, nor the Federal Trade Commission have the power to investigate what occurred, or try to make the cruise company change their ways. 

I don’t know whether this exercise will stop you from ever buying a cruise ticket.  But, you won’t see me anywhere on the ship, if you do.  If you want to find me, while you are stuck aboard a ship called the ‘Dream’ or the ‘Luxury’ or the ‘Working Loo’ look toward the beach, I’ll be the one relaxing………by the hotel.

Posted by: Mark Wiseman