Range of Protections
It’s not uncommon for big businesses of all sorts to insist on class-action waivers in their contracts, but cruise operators have a range of other legal protections as well. Some of them stem from byzantine maritime laws that date to the 19th Century, when policy makers wanted to encourage investment in the shipping industry.

“If you print out one of these tickets, it’s like 20 pages of gobbledygook,” said John Hickey, a maritime lawyer. Hickey, who spent almost two decades defending cruise operators in court, now represents plaintiffs against them. “Most people have no idea the limitations they’re presented with.”

For example, judgments for deaths that occur far from U.S. ports are limited by the Death on the High Seas Act, enacted in 1920. Most ticket contracts limit any legal actions to select federal courts, predominantly in Florida or Los Angeles, no matter where the customers live. And most of them require passengers to notify a cruise operator within six months that they intend to sue.

In general, cruise industry representatives say it’s unfair to single out cruise operators, who they say implemented more aggressive screening and prevention measures related to Covid-19 than other travel sectors did.

Cruise lines “took immediate and aggressive action based on the information that was available when it was available every step of the way,” said Bari Golin-Blaugrund, a spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association. “Importantly, all decisions were based upon the expertise and guidance of prevailing health authorities.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 14 ordered cruise ships in U.S. waters to suspend operations after travelers on more than 30 voyages were infected with Covid-19.

The Hernandezes’ tickets for the Costa Luminosa contained a “patently unfair” prohibition on class actions, said their lawyer, Michael Winkleman of Florida. He acknowledged “significant hurdles” for their lawsuit, which alleges that the bar on class actions should be voided because Costa Cruise Lines acted “intentionally by exposing passengers to a highly contagious virus” for which there’s no vaccine.

If the case isn’t certified as a class action, Winkleman said, he intends to file cases for the plaintiffs individually or in smaller groups. Class-action lawsuits, which can result in larger judgments or settlements, can help to move cases more swiftly for plaintiffs. Most plaintiffs’ law firms that pursue them do so on a “no win, no fee” basis, banking on bigger payouts, said Davies, the maritime-law professor.

Suits’ Allegations
“The ship never should have sailed,” Emilio Hernandez, 51, said in an interview. “They put profit over the safety of passengers and crew.”

He and his wife almost canceled their March 5 sailing on the Costa Luminosa to Antigua and Europe, but Costa assured them precautions would be taken, he said. Their lawsuit alleges that the operator proceeded with the trip despite knowing that at least one passenger from the ship’s previous voyage, who disembarked Feb. 29, had coronavirus symptoms.