WASHINGTON 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 realize.
"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 (here) for Reuters.
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 ship ticket.
* 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 you.
* 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)