Too Big to Cruise?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

special needs cruise travelersCruise lines have always accommodated for passengers with disabilities, providing special needs rooms, catering to guests who require oxygen tanks, refrigerated medication and even guide dogs. But now, could the cruise industry be setting a limitation on guests?

Reports are saying that a young man who was trying to get back to his home country of France from the U.S. was denied transportation on a cruise ship due to his weight. But it wasn’t just a cruise ship, he was also told he couldn’t travel by plain or even train. What’s going on here?

The young man in question, Kevin Chenais, is just 22 years old but apparently, he was denied embarkation on a cruise ship because of his weight (500 lbs).  Chenais, who is suffering from a hormonal imbalance that affects his weight, was undergoing treatment in the U.S. for his condition when he was met with unaccepting patrons in several modes of travel.

Chenais first turned to British Airways to return to France but was considered too heavy to fly. Then,  Carnival Corp., the owner of the Cunard Queen Mary 2 cruise ship, refused to allow him transportation onboard the ship.

Virgin Atlantic was the first travel company to grant him a ticket to the United Kingdom, but then the Eurostar under-sea train service refused to take him to France, claiming the young man was a liability and posed a safety risk for everyone onboard.

Finally, after the French consular staff got involved, Chenais was finally able to make it home. An ambulance transported him to Dover, where he was able to board the Spirit of Britain ferry with P&O Ferries.

According to a representative with the ferry company, their vessels are “set up to carry people who have medical needs.” So does this mean Carnival Corp. is not?

Carnival “declined to comment” on the situation, but on Cunard’s website, it specifically states that travelers who use wheelchairs or mobile scooters (like Chenais) are allowed onboard but must book wheelchair accessible rooms. So, basically, if someone with a disability who requires a wheelchair or mobile scooter wants to travel onboard a Cunard ship, all they have to do is contact the company and let them know of their plans and book a wheelchair accessible cabin.

The line does note that it reserves the right to deny passage to any passage onboard a ship if the traveler fails to notify the company of their disability requirements. Fair enough. After all, the company must ensure there is a wheelchair accessible room available for the guest because the door with in standard rooms is not large enough for the wheelchair or scooter to pass through.

We don’t know if this was the case, since Carnival Corp. refuses to comment on the situation, but it’s highly unlikely Chenais failed to mention he is a special needs passenger who uses a motor scooter for transportation. Upon booking a cruise vacation, agents will (at least they should) ask if anyone traveling has any special needs. At this point the potential guest might disclose that a passenger requires a special wheelchair accessible room, oxygen tank, specific diet, and so on.

Unless the condition is something that requires round the clock medical assistance, there’s no reason why an individual would be denied passage on a cruise ship. It’s strange to hear that Chenais was not allowed to go onboard the QM2, and of all things, because of his weight.

Chenais’ mother, who was outraged by way her son was treated, believes he was the victim of discrimination. She reiterated that her son’s weight is the result of a genetic illness and was appalled by the refusal of the cruise line and other transportation companies to allow him passage.

Finally home, Chenais is glad the ordeal is over. But it sounds to us like this entire endeavor was a headache he could have easily avoided. Next time, perhaps Chenais and his family can contact an experienced cruise ship lawyer before seeking alternative forms of travel in order to determine if he has a viable claim.

Maybe Carnival Corp., which has already received criticism for its lack of passenger safety and increasing number of accidents this year, wanted to avoid liability for any accidents Chenais may have suffered had he boarded the ship. Maybe the line just didn’t want to bother accommodating to a guest with special needs.

We may never learn the truth behind this situation, but it’s safe to say that several individuals with disabilities, including those requiring wheelchair or mobile scooter service, often travel on cruise lines. It’s hard to believe this one particular young man would be the one to have his ticket refused.

There may be more to this situation than meets the eye. Perhaps Chenais requires specific kinds of medication that the cruise line is not equipped to store. Maybe he requires round-the-clock assistance that Cunard was unable to provide. We probably haven’t heard the last of this situation but it’s definitely an eye opener.

In the past, our cruise ship lawyers have seen lines avoid liability for accidents, crimes and passenger disappearances by either failing to disclose information on the incident or including fine print in their passenger ticket contracts that absolves them of any responsibility for a victim’s injuries . The cruise industry has been criticized for its lack of safety features, despite the availability of new technologies that can drastically reduce the rate of accidents, yet, the industry seems to turn its back on the matter.

Maybe instead of addressing safety issues head on and actually fixing problems on ships, cruise lines are now trying to avoid any uncomfortable situation to begin with. Perhaps, instead of going the extra mile for Chenais, knowing he might need greater care than a regular passenger, Cunard just didn’t want to bother and instead of opening the door to the possibility of the young man getting hurt, the line just didn’t even want to try.

This wouldn’t be the first time a cruise line has refused to help a special needs passenger. Two years ago, a 66-year-old Celebrity Cruises passenger was forced to disembark the vessel after crew members couldn’t accommodate his needs. Though he was allowed to purchase a ticket and board the vessel, the passenger, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, as kicked off the ship after Celebrity claimed he needed assistance that was “above and beyond” what it could offer.

The issue stemmed from the fact that his room, which was labeled as handicapped accessible, the did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act’s guidelines, which require toilets to be 19 inches high. According to the passenger, the toilet in his room was only 15 inches high and caused him to slip. The bathroom also lacked bars for him to hold onto.

The 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line, requires that all ships docking in U.S. ports comply with the ADA. But because the line refused to abide by the regulations, the passenger was kicked off.

It’s funny, the passenger was allowed to board – wheelchair and all – but it wasn’t until he fell because of the ship’s failure to abide by ADA regulations that he was deemed a “safety hazard” both to himself and to others on the vessel.

It doesn’t surprise us that the line forced the passenger to disembark. After all, the line was at fault and could be liable for compensating the victim. It’s also no surprise that the cruise line refused to reimburse the passenger for his ticket. The passenger threatened to sue, yet the cruise line said he gave up his right to do so when he signed his passenger ticket contract.

And the loophole for cruise line negligence continues.

It would be in Carnival Corp.’s best interest to issue a statement on the matter, because the silence is just making the company look guilty. It would also be in this young man’s and any other disabled cruise passenger’s best interest to speak with an attorney regarding their rights in order to ensure the cruise company does not violate them.