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Should ocean cruises be vacations from your legal rights?

In late January, on a cruise ship carrying 7,000 passengers and crew, a Chinese national became ill. Fears of coronavirus lead to the ship’s quarantine in a port near Rome, Italy, until a medical team found the woman had a case of the common flu.

It was another cruise ship disease outbreak and another group of passengers quarantined in a port somewhere in the world, unable to set foot on dry land.

To some, the quarantine is worse than the disease

The diagnosis of common seasonal influenza came as a relief, even though it kills about 300,000 to 650,000 people around the world every year.

Disease scares on ships have a long history, and the treat of a dreaded disease is bad enough. But such stories also raise the specter of paying a lot of money to become imprisoned on a diseased-plagued ship of strangers with no options and no rights.

Passenger Bill of Rights offers few guarantees

In 2013, following bad publicity of another kind, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) announced the so-called “Cruise Industry Passenger Bill of Rights.”

This largely unenforceable, ten-point list offers little firm reassurance to passengers that they would have any choices on a troubled ship. At best, it points to a right to leave a ship (disembark) only if:

  • The ship has docked.
  • The ship cannot provide “essential provisions” such as “food, water, restroom facilities and access to medical care” to passengers on board.
  • The ship’s chief officer (“Master”) approves based on “passenger safety and security.”
  • The exit from the ship meets the “customs and immigration requirements of the port.”

CLIA describes the ten-point list as “voluntarily adopted” by its member companies, as well as “explicitly stated” and “publicly available.”

Proposed legislation might someday provide assurance

The last major bill enacted in the U.S. to protect passengers and their interests was in 2010. A lot has happened in the cruise line industry since then.

In more recent years, legislators have been trying to pass a follow-up law that would, among many other things:

  • Raise the requirements for on-board medical staff, training and equipment.
  • Ensure compensation for families of fatalities, as currently required from airlines.
  • Allow the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to become the central gathering place for information and complaints about cruises.

The legislation, the Cruise Passenger Protection Act, would also require the DOT to review the Passenger Bill of Rights and decide which items in that list should become legally mandated and enforceable passenger rights.

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