Americans Have Few Rights Traveling Overseas

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At least once a month, a traveler sends me a message detailing some major problem that occurred overseas, ending with:

"What are my rights in this situation?"

The short answer is, "Very few." The law and the fine print often conspire to deny justice.

Unfortunately, U.S. travelers often run into serious problems when visiting other countries. These problems include wrongful death, personal injury, assault, theft and property damage, and fraud and misrepresentation. These are all situations where you might well want to proceed with legal action. Even at home, however, legal action can face many problems, and those problems multiply greatly when the defendant is based in a different country.

Given the complexity of the situation, my reporting is necessarily confined to residents of the U.S. and U.S. laws. And although I've touched on this question often, many of you U.S. travelers still seem not to know that, with the single exception of international commercial air travel, when you travel in other countries you enjoy essentially no special "rights" anywhere in the world. Instead, your "rights" are only as good as what you can successfully claim. And, in many cases, the travel industry has the deck stacked against you from the start.

To help assess some of the key problems, I turned to Judge Thomas Dickerson's key publications Travel Abroad Sue at Home and Cruise Passenger's Rights and Remedies. Judge Dickerson is the country's leading legal scholar on travel matters as well as an important authority on consumer rights, generally.

My report is based on my non-lawyer interpretation of some complex legal issues. Clearly, with any sort of major problem, you should consult a lawyer, not a travel writer.

Within that framework, as far as I can tell, in seeking redress outside the U.S., you face several major obstacles.

Jurisdiction and Choice of Law

If you want to seek legal redress for any sort of problem, you obviously prefer to take action in a U.S. court. Local laws elsewhere can limit severely your ability to sue and the amount you might be able to recover.

Compared with U.S. law, laws in many countries:

Base injury and negligence claims on lower safety standards.

Limit monetary awards for loss of life or serious injury. China, for example, limits loss-of-life claims to $20,000.

Base litigation on different basic law structure -- Napoleonic Code or Koranic law, for example -- that may not recognize some kinds of tort or injury claims.

Prohibit contingency fees for legal actions. You'd have to front the costs of any action, regardless of the outcome.

Deny you the right of a jury trial.

Not recognize punitive damages.

Not recognize breach of contract and some other tort claims.

Setting the jurisdiction may well be the most important consideration in possible legal actions. And establishing the jurisdiction may well involve a legal tug-of-war between you and the defendant before any actual process can begin.

In U.S. law, you can claim U.S. court jurisdiction over a foreign entity if that entity advertises and sells its services in the U.S. But U.S. courts often must weigh counterclaims about jurisdiction. Although many U.S. laws specify that suits be brought in a "convenient" jurisdiction, in any given situation, both sides can claim their local jurisdictions are the "most convenient" jurisdictions:

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