When I think of cruising, what comes to mind is the opportunity to witness glorious sunsets, so huge they span the horizon and steal my breath away; the dipping sun flaring a vivid orange, the warmth of the day’s last rays magically traversing the divide to gently apply a farewell caress before bidding all a good evening – you know, those kinds of sunsets that can only be experienced out there in the open seas and never from any land-bound vantage point.
I am filled with anticipation of the opportunity to savour great food prepared by the ship’s expert chefs using the finest, freshest ingredients. For this is certainly one aspect of cruising that passengers look forward to: the wonderful meals served onboard cruise ships, from buffets to fine-dining cuisine restaurants.
I am excited by the opportunity to visit all the ports of call, to go to all these new places and see all the different things that these destinations hold in store. I am thrilled by the opportunity to meet fellow passengers, people from all walks of life and all over the world, and to share and listen to each unique story first hand, so that more than just a single journey on a particular cruise, I can be transported by new friends’ stories to their countries and delve into diverse experiences of lives’ times. Afterall, on a cruise, everyone has the time.
I am eager for the opportunity to just relax, be pampered by the fantastic service onboard, enjoy the shows, activities and all the entertainment that somebody else has worked hard to plan on my behalf. The moment the ship casts off, all land-locked worries and concerns are simultaneously cast away.
I enact the scene in my mind, playing out the narrative, “Ah! What a great opportunity to kick back on deck, or on the private balcony of my suite, with a glass of wine in hand, the companionship of someone I love, and watch the world literally sail by.” And then recently I read a piece of news that reeled me back to shore.
On 13 November 2015, Fox News Insider (the official blog of Fox News Channel) reported that a man was awarded US$21.5 million in damages after he was hit by a sliding door on a cruise ship (“Man Who Was Hit by Door on Cruise Ship Awarded $21.5M”). While the report didn’t name the ship, it did however name its operator: Holland America Line.
Let me say this upfront: Sofresh has been serving Holland America Line for a good number of years now. We are proud to have the privilege, indeed the honour, of supplying the ms Statendam, ms Ryndam, ms Volendam, and ms Rotterdam when these magnificent ladies call at Singapore.
HAL is a rock-solid client of ours. But I’m not writing this article in their defence, because I’m confident that HAL is pretty capable of defending themselves robustly while at the same time, coming to an amicable settlement of the issue. Afterall, HAL has long been in the business of making people happy and by any track record, they’ve been extremely successful at doing so. Many who’ve experienced HAL’s cruises have only good things to say and keep returning for more.
HAL has a long and rich history, world-wide recognition of course, and has won much acclaim over the years. It has an incredible and valuable reputation built over repeated excellent delivery on all its promises to its guests year in year out. And perhaps that’s why it seems a plumb target for those who practice opportunism.
An oft bedfellow of opportunism’s is sensationalism. Now, I’m sure that the reporter who wrote the piece, if not then his/her editor, designed that headline to jump right off the page and throttle readers’ eyes for attention. And it did! When I read (and re-read) that stupendous amount awarded for damages, a few things immediately sprang to mind:
HOW badly hurt by the door was that man? – it must have been an unimaginably grievous injury. Perhaps he had his head smashed in, or the door cracked open his skull and he needed an insane number of stitches. Or he had a limb severed by the faulty door and nearly bled to death, something horrible like that?
WAS it a door that fell from some height and crashed onto that man? – and thus caused said possible grievous injuries listed in the last paragraph?
COULD it have been some mechanical fault that caused the door to seem possessed by an evil spirit intent on causing maximum bodily harm to that man? – I don’t really mean demon-possession, what I mean is sometimes due to mechanical faults machines seem to take on a life of evil of their own and do things they aren’t supposed to, in this case, the door trying to hurt that man with precision and intent.
DID the door have any glass, and did the glass shatter and cut that man so badly that he nearly bled to death, or is now scarred for life, or has lost usage or mobility of his fingers or limbs? – this thought actually comes from real life experience: a childhood friend of mine, focused on chasing down the ice-cream van that drove through our neighbourhood twice a week, ran through the glass sliding doors of his house. We all heard the horrible sound of glass crashing and the even more horrible total silence that followed. That friend was very fortunate, save for a few small cuts he was fine. From then on, the ice-cream van slowed down a lot as it cruised the ‘hood for business (I never understood why it sped through in the first place).
The news report came with a surveillance video that captured the moment of impact. What I saw in that video: the man approaches the doorway smiling and looking to his left, likely at another man wearing a funny hat. The sliding door starts to close at that moment and hits him in the right side of the face/head. It looks like a proper hit as he jerks to his left away from the impact and winces in pain. The man turns, his back to the camera now, puts his right hand to his face then looks at the hand, presumably to check for bleeding. I don’t see any blood. He is visibly stunned. His wife is right behind him and they stand in that spot for a few seconds. The sliding door tries to close between them. After they recover from the moment, his wife leads him through the doorway and they walk off screen. He didn’t collapse on impact. The spectacles he was wearing weren’t flung off by the impact. He didn’t drop what he was holding in his left hand (a mobile phone or wallet?) at or after the moment of impact.
He was later diagnosed with a concussion by a ship doctor. In court, his lawyer argued that tests showed he had suffered a minor brain injury, causing seizures and memory loss. The $21.5 million was awarded by a federal jury in Seattle (where HAL is headquartered). This included $16.5 million in punitive damages, which was decided after his lawyer produced evidence that showed similar incidents having injured dozens of other passengers. The Seattle Times wrote “the verdict is one of the largest in recent memory out of federal court here.”
This calls to mind the concept of champerty. It’s an archaic and outdated concept from British law. It’s basically a “no win, no fee” agreement. If the case is won, the lawyer is entitled to normal fees (eg. per hour billings) plus a success fee, where the success fee is a percentage less then the full normal fee.
Today, champerty is practiced by US lawyers as Contingency Fees, which are charged if a lawsuit is successful or favourably settled out of court. It’s calculated as a percentage of the client’s net recovery percentage of damages awarded in the client’s favour. In short, the more that is awarded to a client, the more the lawyer earns in contingency fees. And it’s a safe bet that most US lawyers would charge based on a contingency fee arrangement especially if the matter were contentious. It’s also a safe bet, under such arrangements, that most lawyers will be motivated to aim for the jagular.
Take for example class action suits such as the one portrayed in the movie Erin Brockovich (2000), a dramatisation of the true story of Erin Brockovich–Ellis. In the movie, the settlement awarded was $333 million. Erin’s bonus alone was $2 million. She was a legal clerk then with no formal legal training, but through sheer doggedness and genuine concern for the victims she was instrumental in winning the case. So, we’re talking about huge amounts of money, and potentially huge pay-days for US lawyers.
Which, it’s reasonable to imagine, can lead to opportunism and those who hunt for opportunities for opportunism. Cruise lines, airlines, international hotel chains, acclaimed restaurants, mega fast food chains – anybody with deep pockets and a reputation to protect can easily become a target for opportunism.
Things we teach our children: integrity, consideration for others, basic human decency, individual responsibility, the common sense of what’s right and fair, and what’s just over the top and ludicrous – or simply, to not steal, to leave alone what is not rightfully or morally yours to take – all these virtues too easily and very sadly get tossed overboard by those who practice opportunism.
For that jury in Seattle to have awarded that astonishing amount for that man’s damages, one can only, with a shake of one’s head, trust that due process and justice as prescribed in that jurisdiction were properly served. But despite supposedly being blind, justice inherently carries within her the sense of what’s good and right, her pure baby who, when birthed, should balance greed with generosity, malice with forgiveness, and what’s crazy with what’s acceptable and decent. Personally, I hope for a supremely robust defence from HAL on this matter, if only because justice’s baby must be given the opportunity to affect normal lives positively – the world always has room for more of this sort of thing.
At the end of Fox News’ report, I read another headline: “NY Paid $325K for Health Care for Hundreds of Dead People”. And I’m thinking this is as ludicrous as the $21.5 million awarded, except that surely by some measure of what’s reasonable and what’s not, $21.5M must necessarily make itself way more ridiculous than $325K, right?
Sigh, let me just set sail on a cruise. I want to live for all the beautiful, positive, life-and-soul enriching opportunities to be found in this world of ours. Opportunities, not opportunism – Please. Because after us, our children will look to the heavens and ask, or perhaps demand: what have we done, what have we left behind? Some call this thing “our legacy”.
I want mine to be one that makes my children smile with fondness, pride, joy and all the good stuff. And in turn, they’ll build their own lives and legacies up to be mighty, positive ones, in pursuit of the correct opportunities for themselves and those they affect.