Costa Concordia sinking leaves other cruise ship passengers alarmed — and out of luck

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By Christopher Elliott

The tragic sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship last week is leaving a line of worried passengers in its wake. Betty Westbrook is among them. The retiree from Allen, Tex., called me hours after the ship sank off the Italian coast, hoping that I could help her. “What are my chances for a refund?” she asked.

Westbrook believes that had she been aboard the cruise liner, she might have been a casualty. “I’m 82, and I couldn’t have made it off the ship without help,” she says. Reading about the Concordia crew’s alleged unpreparedness for disaster has made her nervous about her February cruise to the Bahamas on the Carnival Magic.

The Concordia went down Jan. 13 after running aground near the island of Giglio. At least 11 passengers died. The ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, reportedly maneuvered the ship too close to a fishing village. Authorities have arrested him and are investigating him for abandoning ship, causing a shipwreck, and manslaughter.

Costa Cruises is owned by Miami-based Carnival, the world’s largest cruise line operator. It’s now facing passengers having second thoughts about their floating vacation. A nonscientific online survey conducted soon after the disaster by the opinion Web site SodaHead.com found that one-quarter of those polled were “less likely” to book a cruise after the Costa disaster.

Refund policies vary among cruise lines after incidents

Westbrook told me that when she heard about Carnival’s handling of the Concordia sinking, she phoned her travel agency immediately to find out whether she could cancel her cruise.

The answer to her question is: no refunds — at least not for her.

“We’re not making any changes to our refund policy,” said Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen. If she canceled, Westbrook would lose her deposit or 75 percent of the total cruise fare, whichever is greater.

Costa, however, is offering passengers scheduled to sail on the Concordia through Feb. 25 their money back and a 30 percent cruise credit.

Meanwhile, the cruise line says it is covering the costs of lodging and return transportation for the Concordia’s survivors, as well as offering counseling to the passengers and their families “as needed.” It is also refunding all voyage costs, including onboard expenses.

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In a statement issued just after the incident, Costa and its corporate parent sought to assure passengers such as Westbrook that its vessels are safe. “Costa is committed to ensuring that no such incident ever occurs again,” it said. “Our number-one priority is always the safety and security of our guests and crew. We comply with all safety regulations.”

But passengers have some cause for concern, particularly when it comes to Costa, says Miami-based maritime lawyer Jim Walker.

“In the last two years, Costa has experienced three significant incidents in which crew members have been killed and passengers have been injured,” he says.

On Feb. 26, 2010, the Costa Europa rammed into a pier in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, as it was trying to dock in rough weather. Three crew members were killed and three passengers were injured. And on Oct. 18, 2010, the Costa Classica collided with a Belgian cargo ship near China’s Yangtze River, injuring several passengers.

Costa’s safety record isn’t the only thing that should frighten passengers, say Walker and other legal experts. Also worrisome are the flimsy legal rights passengers have when they book a cruise, as outlined in a legal document known as the ticket contract. This contract is available on the cruise line’s website and is typically included with your ticket.

For passengers with future cruise plans, the contract delivers some bad news: If you want a refund, and you’re within two weeks of departing on a European cruise, you’re out of luck. (If it’s anywhere between 44 and 15 days until your vacation, you can get half your money back.)

The contract is equally restrictive as it applies to the Concordia’s survivors. The fine print in the contract limits the cruise line’s liability to about $71,000 per passenger. It requires that any claim against the company be filed within a year. This restricts the filing venue to a court in Genoa, Italy, and applies Italian law to resolving the dispute.

For cruises from U.S. ports, Costa’s contract limits the venue for filing lawsuits to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, effectively turning any lawsuit into a costly federal case. Other ticket language prevents smaller complaints from being brought together as class actions, further limiting passengers’ access to justice, say legal experts.

Cruise line claims adjusters often send a series of letters to injured survivors, asking for more information. The time required for correspondence and documentation runs down the clock on any claims, according to David Deehl, an adjunct law professor at the University of Miami and the vice chairman of the American Bar Association’s Admiralty and Maritime Law Committee.

“They’re appearing to want to settle, asking for more and more information,” he says. In fact, they’re usually intent on paying the least they can under the law. (Here’s how to find the best travel insurance.)

One place where cruise lines move quickly is in shoring up their own defense, Deehl notes. “They have their own civil defense lawyers who often fly right to the ship to interview crew and passengers immediately, locking in their defense theories with sworn testimony,” he told me.

Know your rights before setting sail

If you’re considering a cruise vacation, experts suggest reviewing the ticket contract before booking to know what rights you have. If you’re uncomfortable with the terms, they recommend sticking to a land-based vacation.

Travel insurance might help the Concordia’s survivors recover some of their lost property and pay for the expense of their interrupted vacation. But only the most expensive policy, known as “cancel for any reason” insurance, would have allowed a passenger such as Westbrook to get a refund. (And read the policy carefully — some “cancel for any reason” policies offer only a percentage of your money back.)

Westbrook says her friends have advised her to stop worrying. After all, her vacation is happening half a world away on a different cruise line, even though it’s owned by the same company. But she says it’s difficult, although “it looks like I don’t have much of a choice.”

It’s too bad the survivors had to wait until the Concordia sank before they discovered that they have few rights of redress. And too bad it took a maritime disaster to reveal to other cruise passengers that they have virtually the same problem.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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