By Keri Blakinger and Katherine Blunt, Chron
An unhappy traveler is suing Royal Caribbean for refusing to call off a Galveston cruise even as Hurricane Harvey battered southeast Texas.
Instead of allowing would-be vacationers to reschedule in light of the category 4 storm, a federal lawsuit alleges, the cruise line forced families to choose between traveling into the path of the hurricane for an Aug. 27 ship departure or forfeiting all the money shelled out for the pricey trip.
The suit filed Thursday in Florida’s Southern District offers a class action claim on behalf of Canadian traveler Nikki McIntosh and all similarly situated passengers who booked Aug. 27 trips on the Miami-based cruise line’s Liberty of the Seas.
The court filing paints a dire picture of the week’s events, with claims of toddlers wading through flood waters as their stranded families searched for food after they were “strong-armed” into coming to Galveston when the cruise line “repeatedly” told passengers they would lose the entire cost of the trip if they cancelled.
“What Royal Caribbean did to these passengers is simply shocking,” attorney Michael Winkleman said in a statement. “They knowingly placed families with small children directly in the path of one of the worst storms to hit the U.S. in centuries.”
Royal Caribbean declined to comment.
The day before Harvey made landfall, Royal Caribbean issued an online notice that the Sunday cruise was still set to leave port as scheduled, according to the suit.
The following day, as the storm struck the Lone Star State, airlines started cancelling flights and officials shuttered the Port of Galveston.
The port closure trapped Liberty of the Seas and three Carnival Cruise ships at sea, stranding more than 20,000 passengers set to disembark in Galveston. But still, Royal Caribbean told incoming travelers to expect an on-time departure that Sunday, plaintiffs charge.
And while Carnival announced the rerouting of its ships to other ports, Royal Caribbean “sailed straight ahead,” the suit alleges. On the afternoon of Saturday, Aug. 26, according to legal filings, the cruise line’s chief meteorologist tweeted: “Weather looking favorable tonight and tomorrow.”
A few hours later, the cruise line again told passengers the Sunday trip was still scheduled to set sail as planned.
“By this time, catastrophic flooding had already begun,” the suit says. “Hundreds of flights were cancelled, and highways were flooded, impassable and deadly. Yet RCCL was still attempting to find a way to make the scheduled sailing.”
Late Saturday night, the cruise line pushed its Sunday departure back to Monday, as the port’s continued closure would prevent the ship from docking.
“At or around this time, was the last chance that these passengers likely could have escaped being trapped in Hurricane Harvey’s flood waters,” the lawyers write, “but RCCL did its best to convince these passengers to stay directly in harm’s way.”
On Sunday, Aug. 27 – the day of the worst flooding in Galveston County – the cruise line finally emailed passengers offering the ability to cancel for a full refund and future discount. A few hours later, they called off the cruise altogether.
But by then, scores of passengers had already flocked to the Galveston area.
“Had the cruise been cancelled a day or two earlier, just like Carnival did, then these passengers would not have been trapped in the path of Hurricane Harvey and subjected to 5-6 days of terror, hardship and inconvenience in a place foreign to them,” the suit alleges.
After a flight from her home in Canada, Nikki McIntosh found herself stuck in storm-battered southeast Texas with her husband and two children, ages 3 and 6.
“We ended up being trapped in Houston at our own expense for six days,” she said in a statement. “We were surrounded by flood waters, our hotel leaking very badly. Food shortages were a massive concern.”
McIntosh and her family shelled out $4,500 for a week of stress that was “completely unavoidable,” she said, accusing the company of “holding our hard-earned money hostage.”
The suit charges the company with negligence for everything from refusing to cancel sooner to failing to monitor the weather better. The plaintiffs have suffered emotional distress with symptoms ranging from nausea to nightmares, the filings allege.
“The conduct of RCCL as alleged above is so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” lawyers write.
The filing doesn’t include the specific amount of a monetary demand other than to say it should cover lost wages, emotional anguish and physical pain and suffering, among other things.