Cruise ship wanted in US lawsuit over unpaid bills changes course to the Bahamas

Passengers on board Crystal Cruises' Crystal Symphony were kept on board an extra day when the ship changed course after the issuance of an arrest warrant for the ship because of unpaid fuel bills.

On Saturday, the ship sailed to Bimini, Bahamas after skirting its planned disembarkation in Miami where the ship may have been met by a US marshal. Initially, the ship was meant to return to Miami on Saturday, ending a round-trip cruise that began January 8, according to Cruise Mapper.

Passengers and some crew, apart from a skeleton crew who will continue to man the ship, disembarked Sunday in Bimini, Elio Pace told USA Today. Pace is a United Kingdom-based performer who was working on board Crystal Symphony.

"We are all safely on this ferry and have said goodbye to the ship," he said before the ferry departed for Fort Lauderdale – the cruise line's solution for transporting passengers to Florida after its divergence to Bimini.

But with a cruise scheduled to end in a different country on a different day, some are wondering whether the situation is one that is allowed. One Twitter user even suggested the situation was something like a "kidnapping".

So, can a cruise ship keep passengers on board past their disembarkation date for a non-technical reason like it did this weekend? USA Today spoke to experts to find out.

Can cruise lines change itineraries?

The short answer is yes, according to Jim Walker, an attorney who runs Cruise Law News, a site with a tag line that reads, "Everything Cruise Lines Don't Want You to Know."

Walker told USA Today that like any other cruise line, Crystal has the right to change the itinerary and ports of call. He cited item nine of its ticket terms and conditions which are listed on the cruise line's website.

"Ending up on the tiny island of Bimini in the Bahamas rather than back in Miami where they're making their connecting flights is a significant change, but the cruise line can legally do this pursuant to the onerous terms and conditions in its passenger tickets," Walker explained.

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"Whether they realised it at the time, cruise passengers unwittingly agreed to all of the terms and conditions in the cruise passenger ticket, including the right of Crystal Cruises at its sole option and discretion, to alter the itinerary and substitute ports," he said.

Was it an appropriate choice to change itinerary based on the circumstances?

Itinerary changes are common and allowed. But Crystal Cruises "didn't want to go to Miami because then if they did the vessel could be arrested," Michael Winkleman, a cruise attorney, told USA Today.

"Certainly they can change the itinerary but that doesn't mean it's appropriate, and it may leave the door open to passengers bringing lawsuits against them," he said.

Does what happened classify as 'kidnapping'?

Cruise attorney Michael Winkleman told USA Today that what happens fits the legal elements of what kidnapping is "strictly speaking".

"But no one would ever prosecute particularly if it's just a day or two on a luxury cruise," Winkelman said.

Walker agreed.

"It is a form of kidnapping to the extent that those passengers not agreeable to being taken to Bimini as opposed to Miami were taken against their will," he said.

But that doesn't mean "kidnapping" would stand up in a court.

"Legally speaking, the cruise guests gave contractual permission to the cruise lines to take them wherever the cruise lines wanted," Walker said. "Remember, the seizure order (i.e. arrest warrant) can be enforced only in a US port. That's why Crystal Cruises, which registers its ships in the Bahamas, diverted to a port in that feckless country in order to evade and avoid US jurisdiction."

Could passengers sue for what happened?

Winkleman noted that if they felt the need, passengers could sue for what happened. He doesn't believe the application of the cruise line's contract that notes itinerary changes would apply in this particular situation.

"I don't think it would be a bar to a lawsuit," Winkleman said.

Walker, too, agreed a passenger could sue, "with the caveat that anyone can sue anyone".

Any lawsuit filed isn't likely to be successful, Walker said.

"The legal relationship between a cruise passenger and a cruise line is determined by the terms and conditions of the contract between them," Walker said. "The cruise passenger ticket is considered to be the legally binding contract in effect. Pursuant to the contract which is drafted exclusively by attorneys for the cruise line for the benefit of the cruise line, the cruise line has a legal basis to alter the itineraries and substitute ports at its sole discretion."

People who were on the ship aren't fussed about the change in plans

From the ferry to Fort Lauderdale, Pace told USA Today that the atmosphere was "very calm" even with a delay.

"We boarded a couple of hours later than we wanted to," he said, noting there was a delay with two hours ahead of the ferry at sea.

While Pace expressed concern about the situation, he said the cruise line had handled things well.

"I have to say that Crystal (has) dealt with all of this so impeccably, keeping everybody informed at every opportunity," he said.

And passenger John Dresner, from the United Kingdom, told USA Today from the Crystal Symphony that the change in itinerary didn't throw too much of a wrench into his travelling group's plans.

"We had to change flights which actually wasn't too bad, and we will be a day late home which, again, is not the end of the world for us," he said.

Both Pace and Dresner said that the ship's crew continued to feed and entertain passengers through the extra day on board.

And Walker said that the situation isn't that uncommon.

"What occurred may seem shocking to many people but it seems very much like business as usual as far as I'm concerned," he said.

TNS

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