Know Your Rights
As evidenced by the Costa Concordia disaster, tragic accidents can happen anywhere—even when traveling out of the country. A child could drown in a hotel pool, a fall from a parasail could lead to paralysis or a shore excursion accident or careless human error could cause serious injuries to cruise ship passengers.
Unfortunately, U.S. travelers fail to understand the risks involved with vacation travel and focus only on the enjoyable aspects. That puts them at a disadvantage if a death or serious injury were to occur.
That’s because resort operators, hotel companies and cruise lines do everything possible to reduce potential liability. In practice, that means including “standard” legal disclaimers in fine print at the bottom of a travel agreement where only a few people will take the time to read them.
One of the key disclaimers in a travel contract involves the “choice of forum.” This allows the hotel, resort or cruise line to choose the country where any potential personal injury, product liability or wrongful death lawsuit will be filed. That means if a serious accident occurs in The Bahamas, Jamaica or off the coast of Italy, the law of that country will apply to the case.
Why do travel providers include such a provision and why would it matter to a U.S. citizen or resident?
The answer is simple: It is far more difficult to win such a lawsuit in an overseas court than in the United States—a fact that Costa Concordia survivors will soon find out.
The laws regarding these types of cases can be substantially different from country to country, and engaging a foreign attorney may be necessary— adding substantially to the cost, time and complexity of filing a lawsuit for damages.
Depending on the individual circumstances, an injured party may be able to file a lawsuit in the United States, significantly improving the odds of a favorable jury verdict or financial settlement. After all, many leading travel providers are U.S. companies or have substantial U.S. operations or assets.
However, it is far better for travelers to understand the potential risks involved in signing legal disclaimers and protect their rights before leaving the country.
Clearly, the first step is to read and understand everything in the documentation provided by the travel agency, resort, cruise line or other provider. Because of recent court decisions, these disclaimers are typically emailed well in advance of the actual travel date. If the travel agent does not send this information, the agency itself could face a liability issue if a problem occurs.
Upon arrival at the hotel, resort or cruise ship, a traveler should read the check-in documents closely. If there is a choice of forum clause, simply draw a line through that clause and initial the document. It is highly unlikely that the hotel will turn anyone away at the last minute.
That simple step makes it very tough for the travel operator to argue that you have agreed to initiate any legal action in a foreign country. It allows you to protect your rights and gives you a wider range of legal options if a tragedy happens while out of the country.
You can never know too much. By educating yourself on a few matters before heading out internationally, you will be protecting yourself should an incident ever occur.