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March|April 2004
Not So Bon Voyage By John Swansburg
World Wide Water Cooler By Charles Duhigg
Taken to the Cleaners By Katharine Mieszkowski
the prudent jurist By Stephen Gillers
Cases & Controversies
The Shawshank Reputation By John Swansburg

Not So Bon Voyage

The man who put the trip in slip, trip, and fall.

By John Swansburg

THOMAS DICKERSON, A STATE JUDGE IN NEW YORK, collects travel horror stories—about lost baggage, lost loved ones, and everything in between. Like collectors of baseball cards or bottle caps, Dickerson spends a lot of time deciding how best to sort the items in his trove. He has subdivided his stories about mishaps on cruise ships, for instance, into 27 categories. Among them are Slips, Trips, and Falls; Drownings and Pool Accidents; Flying Coconuts; Stray Golf Balls; Defective Exercise Equipment; Diseases; Sliding Down Banisters; Snapping Mooring Lines; and Torture and Hostage Taking.

The purpose of this avocation is not to take pleasure in other people's misfortunes. Dickerson compiles his tales of travel woe so he can write scholarly articles about them. The cruise ship categories come from a paper called "The Cruise Passenger's Rights & Remedies," which he recently delivered as part of a continuing legal education course at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.

Dickerson's papers—"How Safe Are Student Tours?" and "Hotel & Restaurant Liability for Lost Overcoats" are two others—help luckless travelers, and their lawyers, weigh their legal options. If, for example, you've lost a day of spring break in Margaritaville thanks to an overbooked Airbus, you might find solace in "Flight Delays: Rights, Remedies & Class Actions," where Dickerson offers a handy list of cases in which passengers have won damages for being bumped.

On a recent afternoon, Dickerson sat in his chambers in downtown White Plains beneath a large framed photograph of a tiger. (A safari souvenir? No, Special Forces, Vietnam, he said.) Dickerson doesn't just collect stories; he likes to tell them as well. One of his funniest tales, though it wasn't funny at the time, happens also to be the first travel horror story he collected, back in 1975.

"It was about three weeks before Christmas," he recalled. "I went to my travel agent, Oscar of Oscar's Travel. I said, 'Oscar, I want to purchase seven days of sun and fun and I want it to cost less than 500 dollars.' " Oscar reminded Dickerson, then a first-year associate at the Manhattan firm of Shea & Gould, that it was a little late to be booking a winter getaway. But not to worry, Oscar had just the place: Club Islandia, on the north shore of Jamaica.

He opened his desk and pulled out a brochure that depicted a Club Med-style resort. "I said, 'Oscar, this reads great, but I've never heard of this place—what do you think?' " "It's great; I've been there," Oscar said.

He was lying on both counts, as Dickerson discovered when he and the other members of his charter tour arrived at Club Islandia. "The brochure said the resort was located on the Gold Coast of Jamaica. The word 'coast' was used a lot. It was actually about five miles from the coast, accessible by traversing a narrow jungle path downhill or taking a bus that took about 20 minutes to get there. When you got to the beach, you went into the water and you were surrounded by a sharp coral reef. You couldn't go any further than your knees." So much for the sun. As for the fun: "There was a motorboat, no motor; skis, no rope; a kayak, no paddle," Dickerson said.

And the accommodations? Dickerson noted that the resort had inconveniently double-booked the villas to the local rat population; the cuisine was variations on the theme of goat. "They did promise one thing that they delivered on," he said. "They promised intellectual discussions. We had those morning, noon, and night. What we talked about was how we were going to sue these bastards when we got back to the old U.S. of A."

Dickerson took down the names and addresses of his compatriots and recruited five of them to file a complaint. After returning to New York, he convinced the senior partner at his firm, Milton Gould, to lend the firm's muscle to the case. Guadagno v. Diamond Tours & Travel became the first certified travel consumer fraud class action in the United States. Dickerson won his clients $75,000, enough to recoup the losses of every member of the class.

Dickerson's success encouraged him to open up his own shop. "Gould was a great guy," Dickerson said, using his accolade of choice. "But he wanted to represent airlines, not sue them, and I had the fever." His solo practice soon became a destination for disaffected travelers of every stripe—victims of train and bus crashes, airline ticket price fixing, undelivered kosher meals.

At first, Dickerson said his practice thrived in part because travel agents "promoted the hell out of us." After years of taking the heat for trips gone wrong, travel agents were more than happy to shift the blame to the hotels and airlines Dickerson was suing.

It wasn't long before Dickerson started going after travel agents too. For travelers who've been harmed, or just burned, beyond the reach of American courts, suing go-betweens like travel agents and tour operators is often the only remedy. In 1979, Dickerson wrote an article entitled "Taking Your Travel Agent on a Trip to the Court House." "At that point they stopped recommending us," he said.

Dickerson managed to win some big cases during his 15-year career at the bar. There was the suit brought by a woman who had been thrown from a camel in Egypt ("a great camel case," Dickerson said) and the one brought by the family of a man who drowned on a bird-watching trip to Costa Rica sponsored by Cornell University. Cornell happens to be where Dickerson earned his law degree, but he had no reservations about going after his alma mater.

"I called up my old torts professor—great guy. He's still there. He gave me a name of a hotshot lawyer in Ithaca who made his living suing Cornell." Dickerson made the hotshot his local counsel and launched a suit that went up to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. They weren't ultimately able to link Cornell to the death, but they did win their client a settlement of close to $1 million.

More often, however, Dickerson's cases were small time, or had long odds. "When people got to me they had been through a lot of different lawyers," he said. "Most lawyers don't want the hard stuff involving foreign law and jurisdiction, because you know very well your opponents are going to paper you." Dickerson himself eventually moved to the bench (where his current assignment is tax cases) because the judgeship provided him with a steadier income.

Awards in travel cases are typically small and are often paid in kind, not cash. Coupons for free airfare or accommodations have never held much allure for Dickerson, who admits that he doesn't think traveling is all that great. "My wife and I will take a week perhaps and go some place, but I'm not a big traveler," he said. "Frankly, I've been everywhere and seen everything through somebody else's eyes. There isn't a whole lot of romance or adventure out there for me."

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