Compensation for Royal Caribbean's Nightmare Cruise: Required or Extremely Generous?

December 16, 2010

Captain No Longer at the Helm Following Nightmare Cruise

(1:20 p.m. EST) -- The full refunds given to 2,060 Brilliance of the Seas passengers whose ship listed in the Mediterranean early Sunday morning were "very gracious on the part of Royal Caribbean," wrote Hank Muller on Cruise Critic's Facebook page. "But was it really necessary? RCI cannot control the weather."

While debate over cruise line compensation often focuses on a line not doing enough -- an oft-made claim following the cancellation of a recent Celebrity cruise -- this latest incident has many Cruise Critic readers praising Royal Caribbean and yet still wondering if a full refund was even warranted.

"I have to say that I think RCCL is being extremely generous in its compensation to passengers on Brilliance," posted Janet524 on the Cruise Critic forums. "Heavy seas and storms are a fact of sailing and a chance that we all take when boarding a ship ... Given that the 'listing' episode was caused by an act of God, and not through any negligence on the part of Royal Caribbean, I think that refunding all passengers' fares goes beyond what should be expected."

Even Lifelong Cruiser, who experienced the early-morning trauma first-hand, thought Royal Caribbean "went overboard" with the compensation.

In fact, Royal Caribbean's legal policies don't require the line to compensate passengers at all when weather conditions impact a cruise -- unless, of course, the line is negligent. According to Section 11 of the line's Cruise Ticket Contract, the carrier shall not be liable for injury, death or delay, or any other claim by any passenger caused by act of god, perils of the sea, fire or any cause beyond carrier's reasonable control, or any act not shown to be caused by carrier's negligence.

It's important to note that the full refund was the second compensation package offered. Immediately following the incident, Royal Caribbean offered $200 in onboard credit to passengers in standard accommodations and $400 per person for those occupying suites. Less than 24 hours later, the line decided to offer full refunds for a cruise where the cheapest cabins are in the $1,200 to $1,500 range.

So why the sudden sea change?

"Once the team was in the office, and able to assess the situation, we decided that a full refund was warranted," said Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez, responding to why the compensation ballooned so quickly.

Could the line's generosity be concealing a liability issue? "The captain admitted in his first address within 30 minutes of the incident that a 'mistake' had been made by slowing down in harbor traffic, causing the stabilizers to disengage," posted Lifelong Cruiser on the message boards. "[He] described the incident as a 'mistake' more than once."

Cruise Critic also put the question to Martinez and Royal Caribbean's VP of Marine Ops, Captain William Wright: Did the line switch gears and offer the full refund because the captain admitted that a mistake had been made? Wright, who had to fly to meet the ship in Malta, was unavailable for comment, but Martinez response was clear: "Not at all!"

The captain himself hasn't confirmed that a mistake was made. During a piece that aired Tuesday night on NBC's "Nightly News With Brian Williams," correspondent John Ray asked Brilliance's captain, Erik Tengelsen, if he was confident that no error was made. His response: "This is bad weather, and when we have bad weather, I'm afraid we are affected by rolls and so forth."

So if Royal Caribbean wasn't negligent, and the passenger contract states that it isn't liable for weather-related incidents, was the line legally obligated to give passengers anything?" It's not an easy question to answer because of all the different nationalities of our guests, and the laws of their countries," said Martinez. "But our decision to provide our guests a full refund was not based on any consumer law, but rather because it's the right thing to do."

For some who've been following the story, "doing the right thing" transcended mere moral responsibility. Bionicman97 praised the move as savvy PR. "I agree it was very generous ... I would be reinvesting in another cruise," he wrote on the boards. CruisinGerman, who also posted on the boards, agreed. "I think RCCL was quick to provide the generous refund ... the image and reputation of the entire cruise industry is at stake."

And it certainly seemed to be effective. Lifelong Cruiser wrote that passengers cheered when the new compensation was revealed. Dirtgirl, who'd been posting reports from the ship -- one noting how a large gathering of passengers in the Centrum lobby was getting "ugly" -- described the total change in atmosphere. "Once the announcement was made, people stopped complaining and started having fun once again."

--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor