Won court case against cruise line

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On Aug. 13, 2010, I booked a cruise for my wife and myself on the Ocean Princess, selecting it because we were particularly interested in the stops in Japan and Russia. We were to embark in Osaka on April 1, 2011, and the ship would make stops in Hiroshima, Hakata (Japan), Vladivostok (Russia), Inchon (South Korea), Tianjin and Dalian (China), with disembarkation in Shanghai on April 11.

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake occurred in northern Japan, nearly 500 miles north of Osaka, resulting in a tsunami and damaged nuclear reactors.

On March 21, I opened an e-mail from Princess Cruises informing me that, because of the situation, they had canceled the scheduled calls to all Japanese ports and the port of Vladivostok. The revised cruise started in Hong Kong and had calls at Taipei, Inchon, Tianjin and Dalian before reaching Shanghai.

In my opinion, there was little similarity between the two cruises. The original cruise had six stops and four sea days, while the new cruise had only four stops but six sea days, making it even more unattractive to us. We would never have purchased it. Most importantly, the embarkation port had been changed from Osaka to Hong Kong, nearly 2,000 miles away.

The e-mail stated that passengers who had booked their own flights should plan to arrive in Hong Kong no later than 6 p.m. on April 1 for embarkation that evening.

This presented a serious problem for us. Having made my own flight and hotel arrangements, I had purchased two business-class tickets from San Diego to Tokyo on American Airlines, with an onward flight to Osaka. Princess Cruises could have bought my wife and me one-way business-class tickets from San Diego to Hong Kong for about $6,600 on Cathay Pacific (an AA partner), but, despite my numerous phone calls over the next few days, they refused to help change our airline tickets or refund our cruise fare.

I considered the Cathay Pacific alternative but felt it was too expensive, not knowing, at the time, if we would get refunds from any of the three airlines we had booked with.

Princess stated that since I had not purchased their Vacation Protection Plan at the time of my reservation, they had no legal obligation to help me. Princess insisted that they had not canceled the cruise but had only changed the port of embarkation and the itinerary.

Totally frustrated, my wife and I did not take the cruise.

I was so upset by the behavior of Princess Cruises that on March 28 I wrote a letter to the CEO. On April 4 I received a phone call from Princess Cruises in which I was told, again, that since I had not purchased the protection plan, they had not been able to help me. I asked for a reply in writing, and it said essentially the same thing.

By that time, I had canceled all our other reservations, explaining the situation to the airlines and hotels. During the next six weeks, I received full refunds from American Airlines, Japan Airlines, all our hotels and even China Eastern Airlines.

After giving the matter a lot of thought, I decided to sue Princess Cruises for breach of contract in small claims court in my hometown, San Diego, and did so on July 15.

I found out that the headquarters for Princess Cruises is in Santa Clarita, Los Angeles County, California. They sent me a letter prior to the trial indicating they were asking for dismissal due to improper venue.

In the letter, they also stated that since I had printed my own boarding pass for the cruise, this indicated my acceptance of the terms of the Passage Contract. They stated that a contract for passage on a cruise ship is indisputably a maritime contract, and the validity of a Passage Contract provision is to be interpreted by general Maritime Law of the United States, not California State Law.

At the court hearing in San Diego, I was given a copy of the Passage Contract, which I had not seen before. Indeed, my wife and I had been on more than 100 cruises and this was the first time we had seen one.

In Section 16. (B) of the Passage Contract, there was a forum-selection clause which stated, among other things, that any small claims suit had to be filed in Los Angeles County in a court of competent jurisdiction. It could not be filed anywhere else (which makes it pretty expensive if you live in New York, Hawaii, Europe, etc.).

This clause has been challenged on many occasions, but the US Supreme Court has held that passengers are bound by the provisions contained in the Passage Contract. My attempt to have my trial in San Diego was, therefore, denied and I had to file in Santa Clarita (146 miles from my home). I filed the suit in Santa Clarita on Oct. 12, 2011.

On Nov. 28, 2011, the day of the small claims trial in Santa Clarita, the bailiff first advised all persons to go outside the courtroom, exchange information and attempt to settle our differences. There, the Princess Cruises representative told us, “Under no circumstances do we intend to settle.” They also would not share documents.

At the trial, I started my presentation, which was 20 minutes long, with nine exhibits, but, halfway through, the judge stopped me and started asking the representative from Princess about the contract and the cancellation of the cruise. The Princess rep kept repeating that they had not canceled the cruise but only the port of embarkation and the itinerary.

The judge stated, in no uncertain terms, “Of course, the cruise was canceled, and I think it is unconscionable that you can treat your passengers this way,” and ordered judgment for me, the plaintiff.

In California, the defendant has the right to appeal a small claims judgment, and Princess Cruises filed an appeal. In California, an appeal in a small claims case is transferred to the Superior Court and is called a trial de novo (new trial), and attorneys are allowed to be present at the appeal. I could not afford an attorney, but I did more research on the Internet and reviewed my presentation.

(For those interested, I recommend these webpages: http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com as well as http://cruiseresearch.org [click on “Legal Issues Relevant to Cruise Ships”] and www.courts.state.ny.us/tandv/cruiserights.html#ent74. Also, do a search for “admiralty+ and+maritime+law”.)

I studied the Passage Contract in some detail and found that in Section 7, “Carrier’s Right to Cancel, Change Time of Sailing or Ports of Embarkation/Disembarkation or Shorten Cruise; Substitution,” it gives a long list of things the cruise line can do but not be responsible for, with four exceptions, two of which were relevant to my case:

A) If the carrier cancels the cruise before it has started (which Princess did), it will refund the cruise fare (less any air or accommodation charges incurred).

Also, C) If the scheduled port of embarkation or disembarkation as specified in the passage ticket is changed (which it was), the carrier will arrange transportation to it from the originally scheduled port (which Princess refused to do).

Clause A is why the Princess reps kept insisting that the cruise had not been canceled and only the itinerary had been changed.

Clause C is important because it applies whether it was the passenger or the cruise line who made the flight arrangements and whether or not the Princess Protection Plan was purchased.

On Jan. 12, 2012, at the Superior Court in Santa Clarita, I presented my case. It took almost 20 minutes, and the judge listened without interruption. The Princess Cruises attorney and the previous representative responded by saying that the cruise had not been canceled and only the port of embarkation and itinerary had been changed.

The judge began asking the Princess reps about the itinerary changes. He also asked why they had not helped me change my airline tickets. He chastised Princess Cruises for the way they treated their passengers, then ruled in my favor. (Clauses A and C are the main reasons I won.)

The judgment in the Superior Court in Santa Clarita was $4,961 (the cost of the cruise) plus $275 (expenses). The judgment was entered Jan. 13, and I received a check for full payment on Jan. 24.

In summary, I recommend that all cruise passengers get a copy of the line’s Passage Contract and read it. You can ask your travel agent for a copy or, in the case of Princess Cruises, go to the line’s homepage and, at the bottom, click on “Legal & Privacy” and then “Passage Contract.”

You will find that many of the rights which you take for granted do not exist after you pay for your ticket and that Maritime Law is weighted heavily in favor of the cruise line.

In my case, Princess Cruises kept insisting they had no legal obligation to help me because I had not purchased their protection plan, but this was in direct contradiction to Section 7, parts A and C. If I had had a copy of the Passage Contract in advance and had quoted it to them, things might have turned out differently.

In any event, if your cruise is canceled or the itinerary is changed drastically, consider small claims court — after finding out where you have to file. All other claims, for example, those involving injury or death, will require the services of a Maritime Law attorney.

I love cruising and will continue to cruise, but, if there is a problem, now I won’t always accept what the cruise line tells me.

BERNARD GOODHEAD
La Jolla, CA

ITN mailed and e-mailed copies of Mr. Goodhead’s letters to Princess Cruises (24305 Town Center Dr., Santa Clarita, CA 91355) and was e-mailed a request for “another week or so to look into the matter,” which was granted, but received no further response.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

On Aug. 13, 2010, I booked a cruise for my wife and myself on the Ocean Princess, selecting it because we were particularly interested in the stops in Japan and Russia. We were to embark in Osaka on April 1, 2011, and the ship would make stops in Hiroshima, Hakata (Japan), Vladivostok (Russia), Inchon (South Korea), Tianjin and Dalian (China), with disembarkation in Shanghai on April 11.

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake occurred in northern Japan, nearly 500 miles north of Osaka, resulting in a tsunami and damaged nuclear reactors.

On March 21, I opened an e-mail from Princess Cruises informing me that, because of the situation, they had canceled the scheduled calls to all Japanese ports and the port of Vladivostok. The revised cruise started in Hong Kong and had calls at Taipei, Inchon, Tianjin and Dalian before reaching Shanghai.

In my opinion, there was little similarity between the two cruises. The original cruise had six stops and four sea days, while the new cruise had only four stops but six sea days, making it even more unattractive to us. We would never have purchased it. Most importantly, the embarkation port had been changed from Osaka to Hong Kong, nearly 2,000 miles away.

The e-mail stated that passengers who had booked their own flights should plan to arrive in Hong Kong no later than 6 p.m. on April 1 for embarkation that evening.

This presented a serious problem for us. Having made my own flight and hotel arrangements, I had purchased two business-class tickets from San Diego to Tokyo on American Airlines, with an onward flight to Osaka. Princess Cruises could have bought my wife and me one-way business-class tickets from San Diego to Hong Kong for about $6,600 on Cathay Pacific (an AA partner), but, despite my numerous phone calls over the next few days, they refused to help change our airline tickets or refund our cruise fare.

I considered the Cathay Pacific alternative but felt it was too expensive, not knowing, at the time, if we would get refunds from any of the three airlines we had booked with.

Princess stated that since I had not purchased their Vacation Protection Plan at the time of my reservation, they had no legal obligation to help me. Princess insisted that they had not canceled the cruise but had only changed the port of embarkation and the itinerary.

Totally frustrated, my wife and I did not take the cruise.

I was so upset by the behavior of Princess Cruises that on March 28 I wrote a letter to the CEO. On April 4 I received a phone call from Princess Cruises in which I was told, again, that since I had not purchased the protection plan, they had not been able to help me. I asked for a reply in writing, and it said essentially the same thing.

By that time, I had canceled all our other reservations, explaining the situation to the airlines and hotels. During the next six weeks, I received full refunds from American Airlines, Japan Airlines, all our hotels and even China Eastern Airlines.

After giving the matter a lot of thought, I decided to sue Princess Cruises for breach of contract in small claims court in my hometown, San Diego, and did so on July 15.

I found out that the headquarters for Princess Cruises is in Santa Clarita, Los Angeles County, California. They sent me a letter prior to the trial indicating they were asking for dismissal due to improper venue.

In the letter, they also stated that since I had printed my own boarding pass for the cruise, this indicated my acceptance of the terms of the Passage Contract. They stated that a contract for passage on a cruise ship is indisputably a maritime contract, and the validity of a Passage Contract provision is to be interpreted by general Maritime Law of the United States, not California State Law.

At the court hearing in San Diego, I was given a copy of the Passage Contract, which I had not seen before. Indeed, my wife and I had been on more than 100 cruises and this was the first time we had seen one.

In Section 16. (B) of the Passage Contract, there was a forum-selection clause which stated, among other things, that any small claims suit had to be filed in Los Angeles County in a court of competent jurisdiction. It could not be filed anywhere else (which makes it pretty expensive if you live in New York, Hawaii, Europe, etc.).

This clause has been challenged on many occasions, but the US Supreme Court has held that passengers are bound by the provisions contained in the Passage Contract. My attempt to have my trial in San Diego was, therefore, denied and I had to file in Santa Clarita (146 miles from my home). I filed the suit in Santa Clarita on Oct. 12, 2011.

On Nov. 28, 2011, the day of the small claims trial in Santa Clarita, the bailiff first advised all persons to go outside the courtroom, exchange information and attempt to settle our differences. There, the Princess Cruises representative told us, “Under no circumstances do we intend to settle.” They also would not share documents.

At the trial, I started my presentation, which was 20 minutes long, with nine exhibits, but, halfway through, the judge stopped me and started asking the representative from Princess about the contract and the cancellation of the cruise. The Princess rep kept repeating that they had not canceled the cruise but only the port of embarkation and the itinerary.

The judge stated, in no uncertain terms, “Of course, the cruise was canceled, and I think it is unconscionable that you can treat your passengers this way,” and ordered judgment for me, the plaintiff.

In California, the defendant has the right to appeal a small claims judgment, and Princess Cruises filed an appeal. In California, an appeal in a small claims case is transferred to the Superior Court and is called a trial de novo (new trial), and attorneys are allowed to be present at the appeal. I could not afford an attorney, but I did more research on the Internet and reviewed my presentation.

(For those interested, I recommend these webpages: http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com as well as http://cruiseresearch.org [click on “Legal Issues Relevant to Cruise Ships”] and www.courts.state.ny.us/tandv/cruiserights.html#ent74. Also, do a search for “admiralty+ and+maritime+law”.)

I studied the Passage Contract in some detail and found that in Section 7, “Carrier’s Right to Cancel, Change Time of Sailing or Ports of Embarkation/Disembarkation or Shorten Cruise; Substitution,” it gives a long list of things the cruise line can do but not be responsible for, with four exceptions, two of which were relevant to my case:

A) If the carrier cancels the cruise before it has started (which Princess did), it will refund the cruise fare (less any air or accommodation charges incurred).

Also, C) If the scheduled port of embarkation or disembarkation as specified in the passage ticket is changed (which it was), the carrier will arrange transportation to it from the originally scheduled port (which Princess refused to do).

Clause A is why the Princess reps kept insisting that the cruise had not been canceled and only the itinerary had been changed.

Clause C is important because it applies whether it was the passenger or the cruise line who made the flight arrangements and whether or not the Princess Protection Plan was purchased.

On Jan. 12, 2012, at the Superior Court in Santa Clarita, I presented my case. It took almost 20 minutes, and the judge listened without interruption. The Princess Cruises attorney and the previous representative responded by saying that the cruise had not been canceled and only the port of embarkation and itinerary had been changed.

The judge began asking the Princess reps about the itinerary changes. He also asked why they had not helped me change my airline tickets. He chastised Princess Cruises for the way they treated their passengers, then ruled in my favor. (Clauses A and C are the main reasons I won.)

The judgment in the Superior Court in Santa Clarita was $4,961 (the cost of the cruise) plus $275 (expenses). The judgment was entered Jan. 13, and I received a check for full payment on Jan. 24.

In summary, I recommend that all cruise passengers get a copy of the line’s Passage Contract and read it. You can ask your travel agent for a copy or, in the case of Princess Cruises, go to the line’s homepage and, at the bottom, click on “Legal & Privacy” and then “Passage Contract.”

You will find that many of the rights which you take for granted do not exist after you pay for your ticket and that Maritime Law is weighted heavily in favor of the cruise line.

In my case, Princess Cruises kept insisting they had no legal obligation to help me because I had not purchased their protection plan, but this was in direct contradiction to Section 7, parts A and C. If I had had a copy of the Passage Contract in advance and had quoted it to them, things might have turned out differently.

In any event, if your cruise is canceled or the itinerary is changed drastically, consider small claims court — after finding out where you have to file. All other claims, for example, those involving injury or death, will require the services of a Maritime Law attorney.

I love cruising and will continue to cruise, but, if there is a problem, now I won’t always accept what the cruise line tells me.

BERNARD GOODHEAD
La Jolla, CA

ITN mailed and e-mailed copies of Mr. Goodhead’s letters to Princess Cruises (24305 Town Center Dr., Santa Clarita, CA 91355) and was e-mailed a request for “another week or so to look into the matter,” which was granted, but received no further response.