By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
Later that night, Bravo and nine other crewmen are lounging around in a room at the Days Inn near the hospital, killing time and staring vacantly at the television set. The roar of the chariot-race scene from Ben Hur competes with the roar of traffic along State Road 836. Since July, Room 542 has been home to Rigoberto Mondragon and Yader Cortez, both of whom were injured in the Carnival lifeboat fall. Mondragon says he injured his neck, ribs, shoulder, elbow, legs, and kidney in the fall; Cortez suffered injuries to his neck, back, chest, knee, and testicles.
Among their acquaintances is Jose Martinez, a 38-year-old Nicaraguan who was crushed beneath a pile of tumbling luggage in an elevator in 1987 on the Carnival ship Celebration. Gustavo Escobar, a 30-year-old worker from Honduras, fell 60 feet off suspended scaffolding as he painted the side of Carnival's Ecstasy in October. Only two or three of the men in the room ever made it past secondary school, and none but Bravo has any facility with English. "They have poor backgrounds, they come from farms," Bravo explains as Charlton Heston careens around the flickering racetrack. "They don't know anything."
They know enough to hire a lawyer. And to a man, each has pinned his hopes on one of Miami's maritime attorneys to get him out of the country, if not with his health, at least with a healthy pocketful of cash. And so it comes as no surprise to seafarers'-rights advocates that agents for cruise lines will go to great lengths to separate the laborers from the litigators. "In some cases they try to put injured crew members as far away as possible so they can't reach legal assistance," says Maria Jimenez, volunteer coordinator of the Seamans' Church Institute of South Florida, a seafarers'-advocacy group. "As soon as we know there's been an accident, we try to get them a lawyer. Crew members need a voice. It's not acceptable that a person goes home sick without means of support."
Cruise-line executives admit that in cases that threaten to enter the legal arena, they will often attempt to settle with injured crew members before they hire a lawyer. Such a settlement, say attorneys and cruise ship employees, might involve cash, a pay raise, or a vacation. Other times it involves the art of gentle persuasion. "There are attempts to discourage guys by saying that all a lawyer's going to do for you is delay the case for months and months and take a big chunk of your money," says attorney Brett Rivkind. "They'll say it's better for you to settle with us. They head off the lawyers."
Rigoberto Mondragon, one of the victims of the lifeboat accident, says he was approached soon after the accident by Carnival executives with offers to make. "They said, `Don't get a lawyer,' and asked that if one of the others in the accident gets a lawyer that I should go and tell them. They offered me a cruise in a passenger cabin, as well." Carnival spokesman Tim Gallagher denies that such a conversation ever occurred.
"If we offer them a deal, that's business," asserts Norwegian Cruise Line attorney Kritzman. "There really isn't a strategy to do that. It's like any other loss prevention, if there's an incident of some concern. The bottom line is there's nothing unethical about doing this. Is there some grand scheme to keep crew members away from lawyers and out of the United States? No, not really. It's just claims-handling."
Attorney William Huggett and his colleagues contend that some cruise lines don't just skip around near the ethics line, they bound right over it. "They tell the crew members sometimes that they don't have a right to a lawyer," says Huggett. "What does a twenty-year-old guy fresh out of the fields of Guatemala know about his legal rights? Nothing. Does he even know how to operate the American phone system? They operate on ignorance and fear of the company." But an officer who has worked for several cruise lines for the last few years says crew members are not as naive as Huggett suggests. "Word gets around real quick that so-and-so made $75,000 on a back injury," says the officer, who asked that he not be identified. "Cruise lines are big companies and there are people who will try to beat the system. So the cruise line will try to protect itself. But in that protection," he adds, "they are unfair."
A signed contract between a seaman and a lawyer doesn't seem to have stopped cruise lines from negotiating with crew members, either. Huggett has sued Norwegian Cruise Line and its insurer for damages in excess of $50,000,000, alleging that Norwegian illegally stole his client, Cameron Castrillo, who worked as a busboy on the ship Seaward. In October 1988, when Castrillo interceded in a fight between two co-workers, he suffered a brain bruise and a depressed skull fracture.
Castrillo employed Huggett and filed a suit against the cruise company, alleging that representatives of the insurance company and Norwegian Cruise Line contacted Castrillo in July 1989 in his hometown of Manila, Philippines. The agents purportedly induced the busboy to settle the case for $100,000 by telling him that he wouldn't receive as much money if the case were to go to trial, and that if he "went to trial, in the end he would lose more money because his attorney would interfere with his settlement." In the suit, Huggett further alleges that the agents promised the busboy a better job if he settled the claim.