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TRAVEL INSIDER

Judge's Advice: 'Be a Little More Careful'

A New York jurist updates his law reference book of travel horrors and misadventures. He admits he prefers to stay at home.

April 22, 2001|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | Times Travel Writer

He spends most of his days sitting on a bench in Yonkers, N.Y., surrounded by unhappy families. His only vacations in recent years -- until he stopped taking them about a year ago -- were to visit family in Florida. You could say he doesn't get out much.

But Judge Thomas A. Dickerson knows more about bad trips than Jerry Garcia and William Burroughs ever forgot. He is the author of "Travel Law," which I do not recommend for poolside reading but which may be one of the greatest compendiums of misadventure ever assembled.

That doesn't necessarily mean you should buy it. It's mostly a reference book for lawyers, priced at more than $100, and in such volumes the footnotes tend to fly and subordinate clauses to proliferate. But the judge has interesting stories to tell.

The first edition of "Travel Law," published by the Law Journal Press in New York, came out in 1981. One reviewer called it "an inventory of everything that ever went wrong, or that possibly could go wrong, with travel."

And, of course, things keep going wrong. Dickerson has seen the book through 35 revisions and expansions. It covers more than 700 pages, tracing cases that involve airlines, cruise companies, hotels, rental cars, tour operators and travel agents.

'The nature of the industry is to sell dreams," says Dickerson, who is 56. "People don't want to hear anything negative about their dream vacation. And because of that, they're more vulnerable to misrepresentation and fraud."

Dickerson cites as significant two cases that have moved recently through the courts:

* In Stevens vs. Premier Cruises, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled last June that foreign-flagged cruise ships touching U.S. ports must comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. This could force cruise lines to spend millions on upgrades; it also could lower barriers to travel for thousands of disabled Americans.

* In the second case, settled in January, Carnival Cruise Lines agreed to end the company's practice of assessing "port charges" (which might have sounded like government taxes but weren't necessarily) as expenses separate from basic cruise fares.

Carnival denied wrongdoing but agreed to restructure its fares and send out vouchers to affected passengers for up to $55 per person as a credit toward future travel. Several cruise lines in recent years have agreed to similar settlements.

These cases aren't involved in Dickerson's day job. Since 1994, he has been first a Yonkers city judge and now a county judge in Westchester Family Court.

He works on travel law in the early morning, before the day's procession of child custody and abuse cases begins; then he puts in a few more hours on Saturdays and Sundays.

Thumb through Dickerson's citations in the wrong frame of mind and you could be tempted to burn your passport and bolt the front door: injuries; delays; overbooking; discrimination; luggage mistakenly sent to Saudi Arabia; passengers removed from flights because of their "noxious body odors'; false advertising -- and that's just the chapter on airlines.

Then there are the twice-sold rooms, rat-infested huts, spilled coffee, drowned canoeists, plundered condominiums and the occasional party that turns deadly.

How much recreational travel does the author fit in between such case studies? Not much. Dickerson says he's really not sure why. He and his wife live in Yonkers, and they have two college-age children.

'We used to go down to Florida a lot to see my mother-in-law, but now she's up here," he says.

Dickerson was an Army paratrooper and Green Beret in Vietnam, then returned to finish a bachelor's at Colgate, an MBA at Cornell and a law degree there as well.

'I'm basically a writer," Dickerson says. "When I was a teenager, I knew I was going to be a writer. At that point I thought about novels. But I got into being a consumer advocate."

By 1975, Dickerson was a first-year lawyer, 31 years old, working for a Manhattan firm and ready for some rest and relaxation. One day, with the holidays approaching, he learned of a charter trip to Jamaica. It sounded wonderful.

Soon he was in Jamaica with about 250 other vacationers, languishing in an unfinished resort that didn't remotely resemble his expectations. He remembers a narrow little beach, far from the hotel; a motorboat without a motor; a tennis court with a fence built on the baseline.

Among all the disgruntled guests, he was the lone lawyer. An idea formed, which he wryly describes this way:

'I heard a message -- from heaven, I guess -- saying, 'Tom Dickerson, this is your opportunity."'

Back in New York, he and his fellow travelers put together a class-action lawsuit against the resort (which has since closed) and negotiated a settlement of about $75,000.

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