South Florida Appeals Court Enforces Forum Selection Clause in Cruise Ship Negligence Suit

cuise ships in portAlthough contract formation is often considered a formal process involving parties sitting at a conference table negotiating terms and memorializing a final agreement, every day people unknowingly enter into binding agreements that have sweeping implications for their rights. The realities of modern contracting are at the center of the Third District Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. v. Clarke, in which the court held that the forum selection provision of a contract contained on the cruise line ticket should have been enforced by the trial court.

The Clarke litigation began when a passenger allegedly injured while abroad a Royal Caribbean Cruise vessel brought a negligence action against the company on October 9, 2013 in Miami-Dade County. The action was initiated only a few days before the expiration of the one-year limitations period imposed by the ticket contract. Shortly after the claim was brought, Royal Caribbean moved to have the case dismissed, arguing that the claim had been improperly brought in state court rather than federal court, as was provided by the forum selection provision of the ticket contract. In support of this motion, Royal Caribbean submitted an affidavit stating that the plaintiff, like all other passengers, needed to check in and accept all the terms of the ticket contract before boarding the vessel. The trial court denied the motion, holding that there was no evidence that the plaintiff actually received and read the ticket contract provisions. However, the Third District Court of Appeal unanimously reversed the trial court’s ruling and dismissed the case.

First, the Third District Court of Appeal reviewed the ticket contract at issue and noted that the contract explicitly stated that it “[c]ontains important limitations on the rights of passengers, it is important that you carefully read all terms of this contract, paying particular attention to section 3 and sections 9 through 11.” Among those provisions were both the one-year file suit provision and the forum selection provision, which read, “”[a]ll disputes and matters whatsoever arising under, in connection with or incident to this agreement . . . shall be litigated, if at all, in and before the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.” Although the trial court relied on the absence of evidence related to whether the plaintiff actually received and read the contract, the court held that the relevant inquiry was whether Royal Caribbean “reasonably communicate[d] to passengers the existence within the ticket of important terms and conditions which affect legal rights,” and not whether the plaintiff in fact received and read the contract. From the record, which included the affidavit noting its practice for passengers to check in and accept the ticket contract provision before boarding, the court held that Royal Caribbean had made the reasonable communication required.

In addition, the Third District Court of Appeal further noted that forum selection provisions are considered prima facie valid and enforceable, see Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc. v. Shute, 499 U.S. 585, 589 (1991), and that it is the burden of a party contesting the enforcement of the forum selection provision to establish that the particular forum selection provision at issue is invalid and unenforceable. In this case, the plaintiff proffered no argument refuting the validity of the forum selection clause, and the court therefore held that it was enforceable. As a final matter, the court held that it was not necessary for Royal Caribbean to move to have the case removed to federal court rather than seeking to have the action dismissed by the state court. Although Royal Caribbean could have had the case removed to federal court, the court held that dismissal of the case is a proper mechanism for enforcing a forum selection provision. See, e.g., Wiesenberg v. Costa Crociere, S.p.A., 35 So. 3d 910, 912 (Fla. 3d DCA 2010); Assiff v. Carnival Corp., 930 So. 2d 776, 778 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006).

Although the plaintiffs can usually bring suit in federal court following dismissal by a state court on forum selection grounds, one should remember the one-year limit to file suit provision in the ticket contract at issue in this case. Since the time has elapsed, the action would be time-barred if it were now brought in federal court. Although removing the case rather than having it dismissed would have preserved the plaintiff’s suit and thus compliance with the one-year provision, Royal Caribbean strategically sought dismissal, likely knowing that a suit later brought in federal court would be barred. Beyond demonstrating the importance of being attentive to instances when we may be unwittingly entering into contracts, this case illustrates the various contractual and procedural moves that can arise in even straightforward personal injury litigation. If you’ve recently suffered a seriously injury, it’s often vital to not only take prompt action to preserve your rights but also enlist competent legal assistance to deal with the complexities that may arise. The South Florida injury attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have experience with personal injury litigation in both state and federal courts, including cruise ship negligence claims, and they are ready to answer the questions you may have. Feel free to contact us if you would like a free case evaluation.

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