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How Your Cruise Ship Ticket can Limit Your Right to File a Personal Injury Lawsuit

Are you planning to take a cruise in the near future? If so, make sure to carefully read the back of your ticket and any other documentation the cruise operator sends you. Much of this “fine print” can substantially affect your legal rights in the event something goes wrong and you are injured during your cruise.

Davis v. Valsamis, Inc.

Consider this recent decision by the Atlanta-based U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees federal courts in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. This case involves what the Court described as an “ill-fated sailing of the cruise ship Carnival Triumph” in February 2013. According to a Washington Post at the time, “Midway through a four-day Mexican cruise, the Triumph’s engine room caught fire, the ship lost power, and then suddenly it was just drifting, somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico.” Due to the power outage, passengers were stranded for days without working toilets, refrigerators, or air conditioners.

A group of approximately 100 passengers subsequently sued the company responsible for maintaining the ship’s generators. The passengers alleged the company’s negligence caused the fire, which in turn left them stranded at sea to suffer “physical and emotional injuries.” The passengers filed their lawsuit in Miami federal court in February 2014, just over a year after the cruise.

The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing the lawsuit was barred under the “contract” between Carnival and the passengers. Before the cruise, each of the passengers received a ticket from Carnival that stated the company “shall not be liable for any claims whatsoever for personal injury, illness or death of the guest, unless full particulars in writing are given to Carnival within 185 days after the date of the injury, event illness or death giving rise to the claim.” Another clause on the ticket further extended these notice rights to third parties that provided goods and services to the cruise line.

As the 11th Circuit explained, this latter provision is known as a “Himalaya Clause,” which is named for a famous English court case involving a cruise ship called the S.S. Himalaya. The trial court in this case ruled the defendant qualified for protection under the Himalaya Clause. And since the passengers did not provide advance notice of their claims within the 185-day deadline, the court dismissed their complaint.

The 11th Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision. Unlike most personal injury cases, which fall under state law, claims involving ship passengers are governed by federal maritime law. Now, federal law normally sets a three-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims “arising out of a maritime tort.” However, the law also allows cruise ship operators to shorten that limitations period to as little as six months by including a notice requirement in its ticket “contact” with passengers, as Carnival did here. The 11th Circuit noted Carnival’s language “unambiguously” established the shorter limitations period and extended the notice requirements to third parties including the defendant. The passengers could therefore not proceed with their lawsuit.