Two cruise lines notify passengers on settlement plan

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MIAMI -- Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises each notified hundreds of thousands of their passengers that they may be eligible for benefits as part of voluntary agreements to settle class-action suits involving port charges.

Detailed notices went out late last month. As reported, a state court here in February issued preliminary approvals of the out-of-court settlements between each line and the plaintiffs in the cases.

The settlements are the latest developments in legal actions brought against Royal Caribbean and Celebrity and 10 other cruise lines, including Princess Cruises and Holland America Line, which were the first to reach settlement agreements. The plaintiffs in the actions were passengers who charged that each line misrepresented the nature of port charges by implying that the "port charges" represented monies paid by the line to governmental authorities while actually paying a lesser amount to such authorities.

As a result, the suits claimed that the passengers were entitled to a refund of the difference. The court set June 3 as the date for final settlement hearings on the Royal Caribbean and Celebrity cases, to be held in the Miami Dade County Circuit Court before Judge Stuart Simons.

The settlements call for compensation to past passengers in the form of vouchers -- valued at anywhere from $5 to $45, depending on the length and time of sailing -- that may be redeemed in booking a future cruise on each line.

The cases were originally filed against the lines in April 1996 by the New York law firm Zwerling, Schachter & Zwerling. Since that time, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity have merged, but the cases remain separate. Nevertheless, preliminary settlement agreements for the two cases are virtually identical in all matters except the compensation.

The preliminary agreement with Royal Caribbean calls for the issuance of vouchers between $8 and $17, depending on the length of cruise, for passengers who sailed from April 19, 1992 to Dec. 31, 1994. The voucher value ranges from $12 to $30, depending on the length of cruise, for passengers who sailed from Jan. 1, 1995 to April 1, 1997.

The preliminary agreement with Celebrity calls for voucher amounts of either $20 or $30, depending on the length of cruise, for passengers who sailed between April 19, 1992 and Dec. 31, 1994. The voucher amount is either $30 or $45, depending on length of cruise, for those who sailed from Jan. 1, 1995 through April 1, 1997.

Both Royal Caribbean and Celebrity deny the plaintiffs' allegations, but the lines have volunteered to settle while maintaining that the litigants "are not entitled to damages or any other relief."

Princess Cruises, which also denies the allegations, reached a similar preliminary settlement in January and sent out notices in early March. A hearing for final approval of the settlement in that case has been set for May 13 in Los Angeles Superior Court. In court papers, Princess estimated 1.15 million members in the settlement class. The estimated face value of the Princess settlement was $13.4 million.

Like figures for the other cases were unavailable.

In addition, the settlements call for the cruise lines to pay the plaintiffs' attorneys fees, which in Princess' case amount to $995,000, according to court papers.

Holland America was the first of the cruise lines to offer to settle out of court, setting a pattern for other cases. Last summer, Holland America notified passengers that it has agreed to extend them vouchers toward a future cruise, valued at between $10 and $50, depending on the length and time of cruise.

A court rendered final approval of the settlement last September, but Holland America has not sent out vouchers pending an appeal by some passengers, according to an attorney for Zwerling, Schachter & Zwerling.

The controversy over port charges was rendered moot in 1997 after industry agreements with Florida's attorney general that required cruise lines to bundle the charges with the rest of the cruise tariff.

However, Zwerling, Schachter & Zwerling is proceeding with its cases against the 12 lines, which are in various stages of litigation, according to firm attorney Joseph Lipofsky.

As part of the preliminary agreement with the four lines who have agreed to settle, passengers affected have the right to exclude themselves from the settlement, thereby reserving the right to bring an individual action for an amount they deem proper. Notifications to "opt out" must be delivered to the lines no later than May 10.

Those passengers who want to accept the vouchers do not have to take any action and will be sent the vouchers automatically after final disposition of the cases. Passengers interested in receiving further information on the cases can call an information line at (877) 202-1520.

They also can write a "settlement counsel" appointed by the court, Robert S. Schachter of Zwerling, Schachter & Zwerling, 767 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017. In addition, information on the settlements can be accessed through the Web sites of the cruise lines as well as the Web site of the attorneys in the case: www.zsz.com.

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