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GENESEO – Plates shattered on the floor as a violent twist of ocean rocked the ship to its hull. At sea for days, the 4,000-passenger, multi-deck cruise liner felt like a cork tossed in the passing swells.
Geneseo attorney Kevin Van Allen, his wife Kara and their four young daughters were aboard this ship for a family cruise aboard Norwegian Cruise Line. Unfortunately for them, Winter Storm Grayson churned the sea into 20 to 30-foot waves and whipped the sky to 70 mph winds for days. The captain of the ship called all passengers back to the ship from their vacation island about seven hours early and steered straight for the heart of the storm.
“It got real when they started handing out child-sized life vests,” said Van Allen. “Then my wife and I thought that maybe this storm was worse than we were giving it credit for. The ship listed onto its side and stayed that way for six or seven hours. Plates were sliding off the table and breaking on the floor. Decorations were falling off the walls. I’m sure that all of the passengers were uncomfortable, but as parents we were hiding genuine fear from our young kids. The two younger girls didn’t perceive it for what it was, but our oldest was concerned, asking ‘Is the ship sinking?’ ‘Are we going to drown?'”
After the waters calmed and the family made it to dry land, Van Allen, of Van Allen and Hoffmann, LLP, was left with many questions and few answers. In the height of vacation season for many Western New Yorkers, he wondered ‘what are a person’s rights when they set foot on a cruise ship?’
“As an attorney I couldn’t help but notice that these cruise companies and transit companies in general build in pretty good layers to prevent a refund even if the passengers had a truly terrible experience, and that once you sign on with a cruise or transit company, you have very little legal ground to stand on in an event such as this,” said Van Allen. “First of all, we were unscathed. We did make it through. However, from a liability standpoint, I now know from media coverage that other ships stayed back, they didn’t push straight into this thing like ours did.
‘I’m thinking the captain just wanted to get people back on the ship when he saw the weather was going to get serious. Once you’re on board, that activates the agreements you signed, your assumption of risk, essentially protections for the cruise company should things go awry. Case in point, the people waiting to get on the ship for the next cruise were at least partially reimbursed for having their trips delayed, but for us already on the ship when the storm hit, we were kind of screwed. To my knowledge, none of the approximately 4,000 passengers were reimbursed.”
Days later, the cruise company did offer passengers in the storm a discount on their next cruise.
“It will certainly be an experience that I won’t soon forget,” said Van Allen. “One of mankind’s largest, most impressive technological creations felt completely insignificant out on those waves.”