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When Traveling, Always Read the Back of the Ticket

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  • Posted on: Aug 26 2019

It is the end of summer. With Labor Day around the corner, people will be taking vacations or visiting family. Many will be traveling by airplane, train or cruise ship. To do so, they will need a ticket.

Many travelers do not realize that their ticket is an important legal document. It not only allows the person to board the means of transportation, but often includes limitations and restrictions, affecting such matters as the forum for dispute resolution, choice of law, and liability.

In Jieming Liang v. NCL (Bahamas) Ltd., 2019 N.Y. Slip Op. 51345(U) (Sup. Ct., Queens County Aug. 20, 2019) (here), a passenger on the Norwegian Breakaway cruise ship had her personal injury case dismissed because of the enforceability of a forum selection clause printed on the back her ticket.

Liang arose from a cruise taken by plaintiff and her family in January 2018. Plaintiff booked the trip on December 26, 2017.

After Plaintiff paid for the trip, NCL sent Plaintiff an e-mail notification (the “e-Docs letter”) with a link to the cruise tickets and travel documents (the “e-Docs”). On December 27, 2017, the day after the booking, the e-Docs were “READY” to be “PRINTED”. To print the documents, however, plaintiff had to acknowledge and accept the terms and conditions of the “Guest Ticket Contract”. Plaintiff did so on December 28, 2017, one week before the start of the cruise. Thereafter, on December 28, 2017, and again on January 4, 2018, a day before the cruise, Plaintiff printed the cruise tickets and travel documents.

The Guest Ticket Contract, in addition to being available for inspection during the check-in and ticket-printing process on December 28, 2017, was also available for viewing on-line both before and after the cruise was booked on NCL’s website. In addition to the acknowledgment and acceptance of the Guest Ticket Contract during check-in, according to NCL, plaintiff and her family again accepted the terms and conditions of the Guest Ticket Contract by boarding the ship and taking the cruise.

In order to gain entry onto the ship on January 5, 2018, plaintiff had to present to NCL’s boarding agents the single page in the travel documents entitled “GUEST TICKET TO BE PRESENTED FOR PASSAGE”. The “GUEST TICKET TO BE PRESENTED FOR PASSAGE” contained notices near the bottom that “specifically directed [the passenger] to the Terms and Conditions of th[e] contract which you have accepted during the online registration process” that “affect[s] important legal rights” and the passenger is “advised to read them carefully”. The “Guest Ticket Contract” consists of clauses that are printed in black lettering against a clear white background and can be easily read. Before those clauses, an “IMPORTANT NOTICE” appears in clear black ink against a white background, advising guests “to carefully read the terms and conditions of the Guest Ticket Contract” because they “affect your legal rights and are binding.” Guests were specifically directed to read “Paragraphs 10 and 14 of the Terms and Conditions of the Guest Ticket Contract,” the latter of which contained a forum selection clause. Under that clause, any disputes were to be brought “before the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami, Florida, U.S.A., or as to those lawsuits for which the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida lacks subject matter jurisdiction, before a court of competent jurisdiction in Miami-Dade County, Florida, U.S.A., to the exclusion of the Courts of any other country, state, city or county where suit might otherwise be brought.” Guests were further advised that the “[a]cceptance or use of this Contract shall constitute the agreement of Guest to these Terms and Conditions.”

Defendant, NCL (Bahamas) Ltd. (“NCL”) moved for summary judgment to dismiss the action based upon a forum selection clause in the Guest Ticket Contract. The Court granted the motion.

Noting that the “validity of the terms of a contract for a cruise turn on federal principles of maritime law” (Slip Op. at **3-4) (citations omitted), the Court held that pursuant to such principles, so long as the forum selection clause at issue “was reasonably communicated” to the plaintiff, it was enforceable. Id. at *4 (citations omitted). The Court explained that with such communication, forum selection clauses “do not violate notions of ‘fundamental fairness,’ either because the passenger’s assent was the result of fraud or overreaching or the forum restriction is inconvenient.” Id. (citations omitted).

With the foregoing principles in mind, the Court found that plaintiff failed to meet her “heavy burden” of demonstrating why enforcement of the clause was unreasonable. Id. (citations omitted). The Court rejected plaintiff’s argument that they were not reasonably notified of the forum selection clause because of a language barrier. “Failure to read a ticket will not relieve a passenger of the contractual limitation,” said the Court. Id.

The Court also rejected plaintiff’s claim that the forum selection clause was unenforceable because she paid for the cruise before receiving the ticket. The Court explained that “the reasonable communication of the ticket, that is, the ability to become informed, and not the timing of its purchase or receipt, controls the issue of whether the forum selection clause, or any other clause for that matter, was reasonably communicated to the passenger.” Id. at **4-5 (citations omitted). Thus, the Court found, based upon the record before it, that the forum selection clause was reasonably communicated to plaintiff, and she was informed of it prior to embarking on the cruise. Id. at *5.

Accordingly, the Court granted NCL’s motion and dismissed the action pursuant to the forum selection clause.

Takeaway

As shown in Liang, binding contracts can come in many forms. For the traveler, such agreements are often found on the back of a ticket or in pre-travel documentation. Since these agreements are generally enforceable, it is important to read them before traveling. Failure to do so will not render the terms and conditions of the agreement unenforceable. Reading them will, however, inform the traveler of his/her rights. And, as the plaintiff in Liang learned, those terms can include a forum selection clause that could divest the court of jurisdiction over his/her action.

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