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Cruise lawsuits filed, but Carnival has advantage due to tickets' restrictive terms

Lawsuits are already filed in this month's disastrous Triumph cruise ship voyage, but the legal deck is stacked in parent company Carnival's favor, mainly because of the restrictive terms of vacationers' tickets, governing who can sue and where.

Cases involving the Triumph -- which was disabled Feb. 10 by an engine fire that stranded thousands of passengers onboard for days in the Gulf of Mexico -- and other Carnival Cruise Lines ships must be filed in South Florida federal courts, near the company's Miami headquarters. The ship left from Galveston, Texas, for Mexico and eventually was towed to port in Mobile, Ala., after the fire. Passengers traveled from around the country for the trip.

Maritime law experts said Thursday that passengers could win despite the limitations if they can show that the cruise line was negligent in letting the ship sail despite past engine problems and that their mental suffering was so severe they had to seek medical or psychological care.

"I think there is a good case of liability against Carnival. The issue really comes down to the damages," said Robert Peltz, a maritime lawyer not involved in any Triumph-related cases.

Still, other attorneys cautioned it won't be easy because of the way Carnival and others craft their cruise tickets -- which are considered legally binding contracts often running several pages of fine print.

"If the ship breaks down, consumers are dependent on the goodwill of the cruise lines, which drafted iron-tight terms and cwins in a lawsuit.

Maritime lawyers said there are three main legal hurdles passengers in a class-action case would have to clear:
  --A judge must decide the validity of Carnival's class action waiver on its tickets. Courts typically uphold the terms of cruise line tickets, but not always.
  -- Whether a class action is proper at all, given that injuries or illnesses are not the same for each person.
  -- Whether, under maritime law, the passengers were legitimately concerned about being physically harmed and whether they had some physical signs of emotional distress. An extreme example would be a stress-related heart attack, but also could include psychological counseling.

Ultimately, Carnival could simply choose to settle the Triumph lawsuits. If the cruise line fails to get the lawsuits dismissed on based on its ticket restrictions or other grounds, most attorneys say that's the likely outcome.

"It's been my experience that the cruise lines are more concerned about the issues that affect the brand, as they call it," Peltz said. "It could really affect their bottom line and ability to attract customers."