The Case of the Dream Vacation
Can a passenger sue a cruise line for neglecting safety?
Hear Ye! Hear Ye! explores a real court case. Read about it below and decide how you would rule. Then read the actual verdict and let us know whether you agree.
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Nina Janet Seung worked for the U.S. State Department as a Foreign Service specialist for 17 years, retiring in 1997. She had continued to work for the State Department for the next decade as a retiree, accepting assignments to work in various posts throughout the world for a few months at a time, when she decided to take her dream vacation in 2007.
Seung took off from Los Angeles for Papeete, the Tahitian capital, where the staff for Regent cruises met her and took her to the Paul Gauguin. From there, they would sail the islands of French Polynesia.
On her first day on board the Paul Gauguin, before leaving port, Seung went ashore in Papeete. She got on a tender, a small boat that takes passengers to and from the larger ship.
When she returned to the tender that day, Seung discovered there were no handrails to help her get in safely. Crew members were standing nearby, but no one helped her board. The tender was rocking in the water, and, as she tried to step in, she fell, badly breaking her hip and causing her terrible pain.
Not wanting to risk surgery in a foreign country, she booked a plane ride home. Because of her pain, she had to buy a business class ticket, which put her in debt. Her injury required multiple surgeries and years of rehabilitation.
Only in Paris
Regent argued that, although it has headquarters in the United States, the ship Seung chose to take did not leave from or even enter a U.S. port. Seung boarded in Tahiti and was scheduled to travel in French Polynesia. Since the ship had no contact with the United States, Regent was not required to provide a U.S. legal forum. Seung was free to file a suit in Paris, where she would have all the legal rights provided by France.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit sympathized with Seung's situation. It noted in its 2010 decision, however, that it takes a "strong showing" to prove that a forum selection clause should not be enforced.
Seung signed the Regent contract, which contained the clear language that "for all cruises which do not include a port of the United States, it is agreed … that any and all disputes … shall be litigated and determined in Paris, France." Since Seung's cruise did not touch a U.S. port, she had a heavy burden in proving that the forum clause was unreasonable.
The court noted that Seung did not argue that Regent committed fraud, or that she would be denied a remedy if she brought her suit in Paris. In fact, the court reasoned, by agreeing to a forum selection clause, Seung allowed Regent to limit the legal expenses that might be incurred by forum shopping. This savings by Regent may have helped reduce the cost of Seung's charges for the cruise.
The court was not persuaded by Seung's argument that she could not travel. The court reasoned that a trip from California to Florida would be nearly as difficult, and cause similar health risks and concerns, as traveling to Paris.
Paris, the court found, was a reasonable neutral location for Regent to require passengers from many different countries to bring lawsuits.
Seung's attorney, Michael Winkleman, says, "The cruise lines bury language in the fine print of the ticket contract, which significantly impacts your rights" — a lesson Seung learned too late.
Robin Gerber is a lawyer and the author of Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her.
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