When Carnival denies boarding, do we stand a chance in court?

Siying Deng needs our help. Unfortunately, we don’t take unwinnable cases, and as you might have guessed, hers falls into that category.

Deng is originally from China, but she is now a U.S. citizen. She had never been on a cruise before, but wanted to take her family on a Carnival cruise of New England and Canada. Her aunt and uncle, also U.S. citizens, were traveling with her. Her aunt’s elderly parents were also coming along, but they were traveling to the U.S. from China on a Chinese passport with a U.S. visa.

So how does that work? Turns out, not so well.

Chinese citizens on a U.S. visa cannot travel to Canada. Well, they can, if they also have a Canadian visa. Deng and her family found this out the hard way. And she wants Carnival to refund the $2,000 they paid for the cruise they couldn’t take.

Deng and her family drove from their home in Delaware to the port in New York. When they arrived to board the ship, family members visiting the U.S. from China — her aunt’s elderly parents — were denied boarding.

When Deng made her reservations, she specifically asked Carnival whether her family members’ documentation would allow them to take the cruise to Canada. At first, Deng asked her question via email. When Carnival responded with paperwork to complete but no answer to her question, she picked up the phone and called a representative.

During the course of the recorded phone call, Deng says the phone representative assured her more than once that a Chinese passport with U.S. visa would allow her family to travel on the Canadian cruise.

This turned out not to be the case. Upset and frustrated, and not wanting to abandon her parents, Deng’s aunt and her husband, both U.S. citizens, decided not to travel. Deng and her husband took the cruise, but the other four did not.

Then began Deng’s attempt to fight back. “I called Carnival to try to pull the recorded phone conversation with their representative,” Deng writes, “but they said all phone conversations are deleted after a month. We don’t speak very good English, but we have been fighting to get the money and dignity back.”

Deng’s English seems pretty clear to me. And if she was told by Carnival that her family’s documentation was sufficient, I think Carnival owes her an apology — and a refund.

“If we knew a Canadian visa is required,” she tells us, “we would have booked a different cruise that didn’t require a visa.”

Unfortunately, her claim comes down to a “he said, she said” situation, and the odds of winning are not on her side. Beyond whatever the representative may have told Deng, the court will undoubtedly look to the written responsibilities placed on passengers. Carnival’s website specifically establishes that despite completion of pre-boarding paperwork:

It is still the responsibility of the guest to present the required travel documents at the time of embarkation. Guest should check with their travel agent and/or government authority to determine the travel documents necessary for each port of call. Any guest without proper documents will not be allowed to board the vessel and no refund of the cruise fare will be issued. Carnival assumes no responsibility for advising guests of proper travel documentation.

After her discussions with customer service failed, Deng took a step that few people take to recover their money — she filed suit in small claims court.

But she didn’t file her complaint in the small claims court in her home state of Delaware, called the Justice of the Peace court. She read the Carnival ticket contract, which sets all kinds of terms and conditions, including a jurisdictional clause requiring any lawsuit to be brought in the court in Miami.

The clause contains one notable exception, however, for suits brought in small claims court. Deng nevertheless filed suit in small claims court in Miami. In her position, I would have filed in small claims in my home state, where certain contractual disputes can be raised.

Deng wants advice from our team of advocates. We forwarded Deng’s case to our contact at Carnival, who immediately responded that the company doesn’t comment on cases in litigation. That’s pretty typical — and that’s why our team is unable to help Deng. If the company won’t talk to us, our hands are tied. And we can make recommendations, but we can’t give legal advice.

I admire Deng’s willingness to fight for what she feels she is due. But the cost of fighting this battle is starting to outweigh the potential recovery.

Her trial in Miami is scheduled for next week. She has already traveled to Miami once for a pretrial hearing, where she said Carnival’s attorney was “mean” and told her the company “can’t babysit everyone.”

True enough. But Carnival doesn’t have to sell tickets to everyone, either.

Should Carnival offer a refund for telling Deng that her family members could travel to Canada?

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About the Author
A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation's largest plaintiffs' law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.
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