N.J. Sues Royal Caribbean Over Cruise Diversion

New Jersey's attorney general sued Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCL) Thursday for diverting a Bermuda-bound cruise to Canada last summer and refusing to issue refunds. The cruise line said a looming storm prompted the change, and contends it was adhering to policies made known to travelers.

The state's lawsuit alleges the cruise line violated the state Consumer Fraud Act. It seeks restitution for the people aboard the ship plus civil penalties.

"It is unconscionable that consumers showed up for a cruise they paid for with hard-earned money, only to be sent somewhere they didn't want to go, without access to the amenities they paid for and activities they looked forward to, and were told there was nothing they could do about it," said Consumer Affairs Director Kimberly Ricketts.

But Michael J. Sheehan, a spokesman for Royal Caribbean, said the ship was diverted because a tropical storm in the ship's path threatened the voyage.

"The safety of our guests and crew members is our top priority, and our obligation to ensure their safety required us to alter the sailing to Bermuda," he said. Sheehan added that the cruise line has never been hit with such a lawsuit.

The ship, Voyager of the Seas, was scheduled to leave Bayonne on July 24, 2005 for a five-day cruise. Instead, passengers found out they would instead be going to St. John, New Brunswick, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, according to the state.

Sheehan said the National Hurricane Center was forecasting on July 23 that Tropical Storm Franklin would become a hurricane that would likely intersect the path of the ship, either sailing to or while in Bermuda.

"All guests were provided a letter prior to boarding the ship that informed them of the predicted hurricane and the modified itinerary," he said.

Sheehan said the ticket contract, received by each guest, as well as sales brochures, specifically outline the company's ability to make itinerary changes under unusual circumstances.

The Consumer Affairs Division said it received complaints from 53 passengers booked on the cruise who claim they were told if they did not board the ship, despite the change in destination, they would lose all their money. There were 3,600 people on the cruise.

The state alleges in its complaint that the cruise line made no effort to contact individual passengers despite having their names and phone numbers. The company posted a notice of the change the night before on its Web site.

Although a cruise to Canada is significantly cheaper than one to Bermuda, the company offered only a credit of $42.50, representing the difference in port fees and taxes between the two destinations.

Sheehan said the company also offered guests 25 percent discounts on future Royal Caribbean trips.

Lyndsay Rossman, a spokeswoman for the International Council of Cruise Lines in Virginia, said cruise goers should be aware of the risk of bad weather in the Caribbean during hurricane season, which runs from June to October.

She said travelers should be flexible because of the possibility of bad weather.

"Travelers' insurance is something that we in the cruise industry we try to stress," she said. "Hurricanes are a natural force and you can't control Mother Nature."