Tensions rise between “Norway” widows, cruise line over lawsuits


By Noaki Schwartz and Tanya Weinberg
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Miami Bureau

In a modest bungalow in Manila, a 49-year old widow agonizes over how she’ll repay the money she had to borrow to bury her husband — the equivalent of what he used to earn in four months to maintain the engine on the SS Norway.

Before Candido Valenzuela was buried Tuesday, his body lay for days in the home he shared with his wife, Christina. He and six other cruise ship workers died in a May 25 boiler explosion on the Norwegian Cruise Line ship Norway as it prepared to discharge passengers in Miami.

Cristina Valenzuela said she has been waiting for the $1,000 burial allowance the company owes her. She thinks the money has been delayed “because they know we filed a suit,” she said from her home in the Philippines on Friday.

“I can’t sleep, I can’t eat,” Valenzuela said. “My husband served more than 16 years. … He was the one [who earned money]. I’m only a plain housewife. I don’t know what will happen to us.”

In Miami, her American attorney, William Huggett, is accusing Norwegian Cruise Line of withholding benefits to pressure his clients into dropping any legal action in the United States. Shortly after the explosion, injured workers say, a company official told their wives they would be sent back to the Philippines if they sued, warning them a lawsuit could take years.

Norwegian Cruise Line spokeswoman Heather Krasnow strongly denied the allegations and said the company has been scrambling to do as much as possible for the victims and their families.

The company has arranged family members’ visas to the United States and paid for their travel costs, accommodations and medical expenses. Company officials said the widows began receiving burial money this week, and a company representative is attending every funeral.

“This has been an agonizing ordeal for everyone here,” Krasnow said. “The entire mood here at the company has been very somber and reflective. We really feel like we’ve lost part of our family.”

Still, attorneys for the injured workers say the company’s generosity has its limits.

Crew members and their families say that, after they began filing lawsuits, Norwegian Cruise Line took measures to try to prevent more legal actions in American courts. On May 27, two workers filed suit against Star Cruises, the parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, between them seeking more than $1 billion in damages. The mother of the lone Jamaican worker who died filed a $50 million suit on June 4.

Last week a Norwegian Cruise Line official called the workers’ wives to a meeting in the lobby of the trauma center at Jackson Memorial Hospital, said Minolinda Marcelino, 25, wife of one of the injured workers. There, as her burned husband lay in a nearby room, Marcelino said she was instructed to tell her husband to “think twice” before filing suit against the company.

Norwegian Cruise Line officials denied going to the hospital to pressure the wives.

“The wives requested that meeting,” Krasnow said. “They wanted to speak to a representative to know how to go about things and what kind of disability they would be getting. At no time during the meeting were they given any legal advice.”

Contracts bar suits

Marcelino’s husband, Ronaldo, 27, who is still undergoing treatment at Jackson, does not buy the company’s version of events.

“Why don’t they come to our room?” he asked. “They just want to influence our wives. … We are the ones who got hurt. We are the ones who almost died.”

Marcelino is well enough to stay with his wife at the Days Inn, where other families also are living. In his room sits an unopened plastic-wrapped basket of videotapes with three wilting balloons and a note from the company saying: “Get Well!! Best Wishes for a Speedy Recovery.”

Maritime attorneys say cruise ship companies frequently try to persuade victims of accidents to file claims with the Philippine government and not abroad, where court judgments can be much larger, a tactic Norwegian Cruise Line officials deny employing.

But Huggett and other attorneys say cruise ship companies such as Norwegian have leverage over the employees because, to get their jobs, the workers sign a contract with the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration that says they must arbitrate disputes with the cruise lines in their island nation.

“The company will say, ‘Madame widow, your husband is severely injured or dead. Now you don’t have any income. What are you going to do for your children? We say fire that American lawyer and settle with us quickly,'” Huggett said.

Experts say these contracts offer to give families $50,000 and a $1,000 burial benefit but prevent them from filing lawsuits in foreign courts. Workers must sign these contracts in order to get the coveted cruise ship jobs, which pay more than three times what they could earn in the Philippines.

If a cruise line stops just one injured worker from filing a lawsuit, that could potentially save the company millions of dollars in damages, said Tom Evans, an attorney with Injury at Sea, a maritime law firm based in Washington state.

Some optimistic

Evers said that over the years he has seen ship companies do all kinds of things to pressure families.

Some have refused to send the bodies home or mistreat the bodies, he said. One refused to pay $80 for clothing so a dead worker could have an open casket funeral. Another offered to pay for funeral services and put the families up at a hotel, then used the opportunity to threaten them not to file lawsuits against the company.

But one attorney who is representing injured clients from the SS Norway doesn’t think Norwegian Cruise Line would resort to such tactics.

“Why would a company be willing to fly everyone over to the U.S. and then balk at burying their family members?” said Charles Lipcon. “All the major cruise lines have gone through changes, and I believe in the last five to 10 years are much better in complying with the law.”

Back in the Philippines, Cristina Valenzuela doesn’t have time to speculate or sort through the intricacies of the international legal system.

Her concerns are more immediate — paying bills, getting her four daughters through school and honoring her husband. Days after her husband’s death, she just wanted to know why the burial money wasn’t in her hands.

On Tuesday, she told her attorney’s representative that a cruise line official had visited her to discuss the benefits she was entitled to under Philippine law but did not give her the $1,000. Valenzuela could no longer wait. She borrowed money from family and laid her husband to rest.