Richard TurenIn large portions of Latin America, the celebration of a young girl's 15th birthday, called quinceanera, is significant, often taking on religious overtones, as it symbolizes the passage from childhood to womanhood. The celebration is marked differently in the countries of Central and South America, but the symbolism of the number 15 is always sacred. There are 15 candles, or 14 friends and the quinceanera girl. In Brazil it is called the festa de debutante.

In July 2010, Liz Marie Perez Chaparro received a surprise. For her quinceanera, she was to board the Carnival Victory for an Eastern Caribbean cruise with her brother and parents. These residents of Puerto Rico were not experienced with cruising, so this was a pretty big deal.

They were particularly excited about the fact that the ship would be calling at St. Thomas, and the day before the cruise, they asked a crew member what they might do in terms of a beach visit on the island. The crew member suggested they head to Coki Beach.

They made their own travel arrangements in St. Thomas using public transportation. The ship's excursions seemed expensive, and they were looking forward to just spending time together on the beach.

By all accounts, things went well on July 12. True, there were some men who looked rather threatening around the entrance to the beach parking lot, just a short distance from Coral World Ocean Park, and the family was surprised by the numbers of hawkers who approached them on the beach. But for the most part it was a good day, and the family hired a small, open-air bus to take them from the beach back to their ship.

Fifteen minutes into the return ride, they stalled in heavy traffic. There was a cemetery across the street. The family was unaware that St. Thomas has a serious gang problem or that they were riding past the burial service of a recently killed gang member.

Suddenly, gunfire broke out. Fifteen-year-old Liz Marie felt a bullet pierce her side. She started bleeding profusely. In the chaos that followed, someone called an ambulance. It never arrived.

Finally, the bus left in a hurry en route to the local hospital. But they didn't make it. Liz Marie Perez Chaparro died in her father's arms.

As they endured their grief, the family found an attorney and sued Carnival. They claimed that the line should have been aware of gang violence on St. Thomas, of the funeral that day and its possible aftermath. The family's position was that since a Carnival employee had suggested they visit Coki Beach, the line was responsible.

In August 2011, a federal judge in Miami threw out the family's lawsuit for lack of evidence that Carnival had been negligent. Is it really reasonable, after all, for cruise lines, tour operators and, yes, travel agents, to be held legally responsible for independent actions that clients or guests might take to visit various port locations on their own?

If a travel agency were involved, would the courts hold that the agent should have advised the family that the U.S. Virgin Islands, often described in tourism literature as "America's paradise," actually rank among the most violent and deadly places among U.S. states or territories?

The U.N. Global Study on Terrorism, for example, identifies the Virgin Islands as the eighth-deadliest nation or territory in the world, based on a homicide rate more than eight times that of the American mainland.

Is this information that should appear in cruise line brochures? Should agents notify honeymooners that St. Thomas is no longer safe?

I go to St. Thomas from time to time. I send people there. You send honeymooners there. We all know the island's many charms.

But what is our obligation to the consumer? How could we have helped the Chaparro family avoid this tragedy? Is it really reasonable to imagine that any cruise line or travel agent would have known that a potentially dangerous funeral was to take place on the island that day?

Some have gone so far as to suggest that cruise lines pull out of St. Thomas. Crime, we know, has been an issue in the past on St. Croix. Should a floating resort be up to date on crime concerns as it approaches a heavily promoted and glamorized port? Is it reasonable to expect this?

The judge said no. The case was thrown out. And so, for the most part, we were left to our own best intentions and an understanding that there are gangs in U.S. cities, and we have places that visitors from abroad visit at their own peril. It is, I suppose, the way of the world.

We would do what we could to tell our clients which areas of a destination they ought to avoid. We do what is reasonable. And cruise lines and suppliers continue to help our clients see destinations as places where their dreams can be fulfilled. That is the way it has always been.

Unfortunately, though, the story does not end there. This month, a three-judge panel from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta overturned the Miami judge's decision to throw out the case. The judges quoted the original complaint that the cruise line "was aware of gang-related violence and crime including public shootings in St. Thomas generally and near Coki Beach specifically."

So the issue now will boil down to whether "the danger was foreseeable" in this case.

Is it enough to say that this family was in the wrong place at the wrong time? Did they actually place themselves in a position of danger because they did not do proper research? Had they depended on a knowledgeable agent, would they have been warned about any specific dangers on this particular date in July?

If the courts come to rule that suppliers assume legal responsibility for any and all potential dangers ashore, the implications for agents and those who provide travel products and services are staggering.

Is it really the responsibility of any of us to deconstruct our guests' or our clients' notions of paradise? Do we dispense as much negative news about a destination as we can uncover, just to cover our backs?

If my job ever comes down to destroying the dreams of others as they try to complete whatever worldwide destination their bucket list might contain, I'll just do something else for a living. Like maybe become an appellate judge.

Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at [email protected].


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