Dave Frishberg's mordant lyric to "My Attorney Bernie" includes the lines, "When Bernie says sue, we sue; when Bernie says we sign, we sign." Passengers from the ill-fated Costa Concordia now face that sign-or-sue question, as will you if you're ever caught in a similar disaster. I'm not a lawyer, but I can examine your general options. These comments apply when you aren't physically hurt in any way; just inconvenienced or emotionally upset.
What's happening with Costa? By now, you know of the ship's sinking. Quickly, Costa Crociere, the cruise ship operator, offered a "take it, or leave it" settlement to travelers who were onboard but not hurt: 11,000 euros (about $14,500) per passenger, plus a refund of the cruise payment, the costs to return home early, and any out-of-pocket expenses. Travelers who accept must sign an agreement not to pursue any additional legal action.
All in all, the Costa situation is about par for the course for travelers involved in any serious situation -- cruise ship sinking, airplane crash, hotel fire, whatever -- but are not harmed. If you're ever in a similar situation, you must decide what to do, often without enough time to consider your options carefully:
-- The responsible cruise line, airline, tour operator, or whatever almost always contacts you immediately with some sort of offer. And that offer is almost always contingent on your signing a promise that you will undertake no further legal action of any kind, a promise you must sign within a relatively short time. Depending on circumstances, a representative or lawyer will be on your doorstep with a supposed "one-time best offer" before you've had any reasonable chance to evaluate your options.
-- The company's initial offer will probably be fairly generous, at least in terms of covering any actual costs plus some allowance for hardship. A really stingy company might initially offer nothing but vouchers for future service, but they generally have a quick cash fallback offer.
Getting a bigger settlement will almost always involve a lawsuit. Often, someone will quickly try to organize victims into a group for a class-action suit. But legal action involves a gamble, and your "sign or sue" decision depends on specific circumstances:
-- Legal recourse is much easier if you can sue in an American court. Suing overseas companies is difficult and often fruitless, especially because liability laws in other countries generally provide much less protection than U.S. laws. If a supplier does not do business in the United States, a lawsuit is likely to be ineffective.
-- Suing cruise lines is generally more difficult than suing airlines, hotels, or other travel suppliers, because cruise suits must be based on maritime law which generally favors cruise lines.
-- Many travel contracts -- contracts that obligate you -- include a "forum" clause that limits the jurisdictions where you can bring legal action. With some cruise lines, including Costa, clauses require you to sue in a foreign court. As far as I can tell, U.S. courts have been inconsistent about enforcing forum clauses.
-- Your odds of success are much better when you can prove negligence on the part of the supplier.
-- Even if you prevail, you might receive a final settlement only after years of appeals.
If you ever face such a situation, you will probably have to make that "sign or sue" decision fairly quickly, often before you can really explore all your options. Overall, the supplier's offer will usually be generous enough to satisfy you. But if you think it isn't enough, I suggest you immediately call your own "attorney Bernie." And, of course, if you're hurt, you need Bernie ASAP.
By the way, if you'd like to check out "My Attorney Bernie," YouTube posts several versions: I recommend Dave Frishberg's original and the cover by Blossom Dearie.
Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through www.mybusinesstravel.com or www.amazon.com