Storms continue for public relations disaster

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The Independent Online

With tales of exploding toilets, freezing conditions and desperately unhappy fare-paying passengers, the QE2's Southampton to New York Christmas cruise of 1994 will be remembered as one of the great public relations disasters of the decade.

Cunard also suffered the indignity of having its refitted flagship vessel impounded by the US Coastguard upon arrival in New York and being forced to carry out vital repairs to the ship before it continued to the Caribbean. Then there were the excruciating television interviews with passengers on the luxury vessel and finally the damning home videos of the holidaymakers showing blocked corridors and fire escapes and electrical wires hanging from unfinished ceilings.

Yesterday's announcement that the cruise line will be forking out pounds 7.5m in compensation to passengers and that the shipping company's chairman John Olsen has paid for the fiasco with his job is far from the end of the story, however.

Yet to be settled by a US federal judge in Manhattan are large damages claims by passengers who say they were exposed to asbestos dust and toxic fumes during the cruise. The passengers also want compensation for the stress they say they suffered for being on board an unseaworthy ship.

The class action against Cunard involves more than 200 British, American and other European passengers who are demanding that a pounds 30m fund be set up to cover potential health claims. The suit is being handled by the law firm Kreindler & Kreindler which recently won a multi-million criminal injury suit on behalf of several victims of Pan Am 103, the aircraft which was blown up over Lockerbie. The suit also seeks pounds 65,000 in compensation for each of the 400 or so passengers who are expected to join the legal action.

About 100 British passengers on the cruise have already accepted the compensation offered by Cunard and agreed not to take part in the US lawsuit, but a large number of other passengers have joined the case. Many are unhappy with the way Cunard has handled their claims and say that the cruise line has tried to short-change them.

Cunard immediately refunded all of the passengers the money they paid for the cruise and it has offered passengers a free holiday at the same time next year.

But because many of the passengers paid less than half price to travel by booking as late as possible, they will have to pay Cunard the balance if they want to book a holiday next year.

Peter Ludlow, of Camberley, Surrey, said that he would have to pay Cunard the pounds 7,000 it refunded him in order to take up the offer and that he was unhappy about the way the company was dealing with the compensation claim.

"Cunard's problem is that from the outset they tried to label us as troublemakers," he said. "They never treated us as customers."

Mr Ludlow also has what he claims is highly incriminating video footage of the voyage, showing blocked corridors and fire escapes.

"We would be happy to get a holiday from Cunard at the full price, but every time we agree to an offer they come back and say they cannot honour it," he said.