A unit of Carnival, the world's largest cruise operator, was ordered to drop a lifetime ban imposed on one of its top customers as retribution for a dispute over a $US585 ($652) art-buying fee.
A US Federal Maritime Commission judge ordered Princess Cruise Lines to end its blacklisting of Lisa Cornell, of Weston, Florida. Administrative Law Judge Clay Guthridge found the company violated US law by banning Cornell, a top-tier member of Princess's loyalty program, for reasons other than safety or security.
"Princess has not articulated any legitimate transportation-related factors that would support its refusal to allow Lisa Cornell to sail on its cruise ships," Guthridge wrote in a 74-page decision.
Cornell and her lawyer husband, Ware, lost their bid for $US33,000 in legal fees and other costs.
The case is an unusual one for a US regulator that has limited authority over cruise lines and usually is asked to resolve matters involving cargo contracts. The four commissioners have 30 days to review the judge's decision; the couple and company both can challenge it as well.
Rachel Dickon, assistant secretary of the commission, and Vance Gulliksen, a spokesman for Carnival, had no immediate comments.
The dispute traced to a 2007 cruise on which Lisa Cornell bought two lithographs from a Carnival-owned art dealer and made arrangements to have them shipped home.
Believing she'd been "bait-and-switched," or sent works different from those she bought, Cornell cancelled the sale. She sued after the Carnival unit kept 15 per cent of the price, a term it said was disclosed in the purchase agreement and that the Cornells said violated an advertised money-back guarantee.
After the sides settled in June 2010, Lisa Cornell tried to book a cruise on Princess, only to find she was blocked from using the company's website, according to the complaint.
Carnival and its units, in commission filings, didn't dispute the Cornells' assertion that a company lawyer familiar with the settlement negotiations issued a "do-not-book" order - something more commonly done with people who have disrupted cruises or posed known security risks.
According to commission filings, the lawyer said the ban was justified because Lisa Cornell was a "proven and documented vexatious litigant" who refused to abide by contracts, made "extortionate" demands and would use future cruises to look for more grounds to sue the company.
Freed from the ban, the Cornells want to book a 14-day cruise on Princess from Montreal to Florida in October, according to the judge's order.