Spend a little time on a cruise ship, and you’ll notice how germ-phobic the seafaring class seems to be. From the ever-present dispensers of Purell hand sanitizer, to the employees offering antiseptic towelettes at the all-you-can-eat-buffet, they look as if they could show Howard Hughes a good time.
Well, there’s a reason for that: Norwalk virus, a painful gastrointestinal illness, also goes by the name Cruise Ship Sickness. Cruise lines like to blame passengers for bringing the illness on board. Passengers say it’s employees, some of which may still have third-world hygiene, who are at fault.
Joe LoTempio is one of those customers. He just returned from a seven-day cruise on the Carnival Valor — an experience he calls “absolutely horrifying” — and is looking for help salvaging his vacation.
It all started when LoTempio and his girlfriend embarked on the Valor and headed to lunch at Rosie’s Restaurant. Shortly after that, his girlfriend began feeling ill.
“Within the hour she experienced severe vomiting and diarrhea, and by the evening she was so violently ill that we had to place an emergency call to the medical facilities,” he says. “She was so weak by that time that we had to call for a wheelchair to take her down to Deck 0 because she couldn’t make it under her own power.”
Then things got worse.
She remained in our cabin, miserable and unable to enjoy any aspect of our vacation, until the third day of our cruise. While she suffered in our room, my choices were to remain with her and do nothing or wander the ship in search of fun.
Unfortunately, I could have no fun knowing my girlfriend was sick and confined to the cabin, missing our very expensive Caribbean cruise.
Finally, the nightmarish illness ended for her and she was cleared to leave the ship just in time to see Grand Cayman. But then I became ill with the very same symptoms. I suffered for another two days, making our stops at Grand Cayman and Isla Roatan just as miserable as our first two days on the Valor.
In short, it was seven days of misery for the unlucky couple.
It is crystal clear that the illness she suffered and then transferred to me came directly from the food she ate at the lunch buffet on the first day of the cruise and is due entirely to the negligence of someone on the Valor’s kitchen staff.
We were both in perfect health immediately before boarding the Valor. It is not a coincidence that she became ill mere hours after her meal at Rosie’s Restaurant.
Do they have any recourse? Probably not under Carnival’s one-sided cruise contract (and to be fair, all cruise contracts are one-sided). Section 12 implies it may be liable for a passenger’s illness, under certain circumstance, but fails to describe when it’s on the hook for a sick customer.
There’s some precedent for receiving a full refund. Two years ago, a cruise ship in Britain suffered a massive norovirus outbreak. Passengers got their money back.
I’ve also mediated cases where passengers eventually received a full refund by way of a credit card dispute.
LoTempio sent an email to Carnival, describing the couple’s ordeal at sea. They received the following email from the president’s office:
We regret learning that you both became ill during your cruise. Please know that on any one sailing there are always going to be a number of guests who report to our medical facility with gastro-intestinal symptoms of one type or another.
When they do, our staff does everything possible to prevent any further spread. Nevertheless, we did take the liberty of doing a little research and while there were some reports of illness on this sailing, we have no indication that it was from the food or water.
Much as we’d love to offer you a free cruise, illness is not something we compensate guests for. The next time you sail with us, you may like to take out our Cruise Vacation Protection Plan which is a safeguard against situations like this.
That’s an interesting response.
I read LoTempio’s letter to Carnival, and nowhere in it does he ask for a “free” cruise. I’m also a little troubled by the “no indication” claim. Did Carnival ask an independent third party, like the Centers for Disease Control, to investigate — or is it just saying it was clean?
Also, I’m doubtful about the company’s claim that its own “protection plan” would have helped the couple in any meaningful way, other than possibly covering some of their medical expenses.
Why I’m on the fence. In the cruise line’s view, this was just an unfortunate event, like getting a bad sunburn or stubbing your toe on the deck. Unless its negligence can be proven, there’s not much it’s willing to do. What more can Carnival do than apologize?
At the same time, LoTempio and his girlfriend had a very disappointing cruise, and they should be able to offer them some incentive to sail on Carnival again. I mean, where’s the customer service?
A survey of more than 900 readers showed they were almost evenly divided — 49.2 percent “yes” and 50.8 percent “no.”
(Photo: Will amor/Flickr Creative Commons)