A few days ago, our cruise lawyers here at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. reported on a shocking incident that rocked the cruise industry, just when cruise lines were starting to get their act together. In the wake of Sen. John “Jay” Rockefeller’s call for increased transparency in cruise crime reporting, several lines, including Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Disney Cruises, and Norwegian Cruise Line agreed to release crime and accident data to the public – an unprecedented move given the industry’s tradition of concealing information regarding serious incidents. Following a year of cruise accidents, sexual assault, gun-point robberies, and disappearances, we really thought that at last, cruise lines were taking a step in the right direction to improve passenger safety. Unfortunately, it seems as though we may have been wrong.
Royal Caribbean left an elderly cruise passenger stranded in Turkey with his wife after suffering injuries onboard one of the line’s vessels, and the cruise company did absolutely nothing to help them. Now, the couple’s story has gone viral, yet Royal is refusing to cooperate. Is this a demonstration of the cruise industry’s hesitation to make a commitment to change their ways? Are we forever doomed to deal with an industry that doesn’t put its passengers’ needs first? A closer look at the accident may help us answer that question.
Eighty-nine-year-old Dodge Melkonian and his wife Jill, 65, embarked on a cruise vacation with Royal Caribbean subsidiary Azamara Cruises that they thought would be the trip of a lifetime. The cruise was free since a previous vacation they had booked with Royal Caribbean was canceled following a cruise ship fire back in 2012. Excited and ready to explore the world, the Melkonians embarked on their 12-night vacation through the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, the adventure the couple ended up getting was far from what they initially expected.
On the second night of the cruise, Mr. Melkonian fell and broke his hip aboard the ship while the vessel was docked in Turkey. He was taken to the onboard medical facility, but due to the serious nature of Mr. Melkonian’s injury and the limited capabilities of the ship’s onboard medical facility, he and his wife were sent to a local hospital. Unfortunately, the Melkonians realized upon arrival at the local hospital that they were no better off than they were on the ship.
Royal Caribbean left the couple stranded in a hospital that was ill equipped to handle Mr. Melkonian’s injury. Besides reportedly being dirty and unable to treat Mr. Melkonian, the hospital would also not allow women inside. Without his wife to help, Mr. Melkonian had to resort to hand gestures and a guide book to communicate with doctors. Though the Melkonians had travel insurance, neither the company nor Royal Caribbean would pay for the medical expenses upfront, or arrange for transportation to an adequate medical facility.
Jill Melkonian tried to at least get Royal to transfer her husband to an American hospital where they could communicate with doctors, but Royal refused to help. Eventually, Mr. Melkonian was able to receive treatment at an American hospital in Istanbul, but only because of the assistance of the couple’s travel agent in Florida, Tammy Levent, and a Turkish tour guide Ms. Levent put the Melkonian’s in contact with. That tour guide was even kind enough to donate blood for Mr. Melkonian’s surgery.
Ms. Levent event contacted the U.S. State Department, Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Bill Nelson for help in bringing the accident and Royal Caribbean’s behavior to light. Nelson then contacted the American Embassy in Turkey and noted that the whole ordeal was “outrageous.” Ms. Levent and her travel company are also talking with Nelson to hopefully draft legislation that would prohibit cruise lines from leaving passengers behind in foreign ports
Ultimately, Mr. Melkonian finally received the medical attention he deserved, but not before the couple was forced to endure uncertainty, discomfort, and complications. The incident has gained worldwide attention, with thousands of people from both the U.S. and Turkey offering their support to the couple. In fact, the president of Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A., Charles R. Lipcon, offered commentary to a local ABC news affiliate in the Melkonian’s hometown regarding the incident.
This incident once again brings to light the safety concerns brought about the conduct of cruise lines. It also calls into question the cruise lines commitment to making necessary changes to improve passenger safety.
As for Mr. Melkonian, he is recovering with his wife by his side. Although his injuries may heal, the experience is most certainly something he won’t forget.
The travel insurance, which the couple purchased straight from Royal Caribbean, advertised that its customers could travel with peace of mind. Despite this promise when push came to shove, neither the insurance company nor Royal Caribbean offered the assistance needed, financially or logistically. Because of a clause in the insurance policy which states that coverage will only begin after other available coverages were exhausted, the Melkonians suffered delays and complications to ensure that Mr. Melkonian would receive the lifesaving treatment he needed.
Now, Mr. Melkonian may not only be able to file a claim to receive compensation from the insurance company for medical expenses, but he may also have a claim against Royal for the line’s negligence in failing to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances by leaving the Melkonian’s at an inadequate medical facility. To date, Royal Caribbean has refused to take any responsibility for the Melkonians disaster trip. For a multibillion-dollar company, one would hope that passengers would be treated more attentively. In Royal Caribbean’s defense, this kind of treatment seems common in the industry.
Though stricter laws are being enacted with the goal of improving safety onboard cruise ships, in the experience of this maritime law firm, it seems unlikely that the industry will truly seek to improve safety aboard its ships.