South Florida Federal Court Denies Equitable Tolling in Cruise Ship Negligence Case

cruise-ship-1403462Cruises are intended to be memorable and fun. However, a frolic on the sea is not free of risk. Indeed, the facts of a recent decision from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, Pettit v. Carnival Corp., show that sea voyages are not without potential mishaps.

The accident at issue in Pettit occurred on September 24, 2013. The plaintiff in this case was a passenger on the Carnival Breeze. While at sea, the plaintiff slipped and fell, leading to various physical injuries. Once back on the ground, the plaintiff brought suit against Carnival in a Florida state court in Miami-Dade County. However, the contractual terms on the plaintiff’s ticket, in particular the forum selection clause, required that she bring suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Two months afterward, the plaintiff finally served Carnival. Carnival then moved to dismiss the suit based on improper forum. Realizing the error, the plaintiff then filed the complaint in federal court. This, however, didn’t solve the plaintiff’s trouble. The ticket contract also included a statute of limitations provision that afforded passengers only one year to bring personal injury suits. The plaintiff had filed her state court suit only 12 days before the expiration of the contractual statute of limitations, and by the time the plaintiff filed suit in federal court the statute of limitations had long elapsed. Carnival moved for summary judgment, asserting the plaintiff’s claim was time-barred. The plaintiff opposed, arguing that the statute of limitations should be equitably tolled. Unfortunately for the plaintiff, the trial court concluded otherwise.

“Equitable tolling [is a] doctrine that permits a court to [pause] a statute of limitations [if] the court finds that an inequitable event has prevented [a] plaintiff[’]s timely action.” Psurny v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., 926 F. Supp. 2d 1325, 1328-29 (S.D. Fla. 2013). Common examples of inequitable events include, but are not limited to, “[a] defendant mislead[ing] the plaintiff into allowing the statutory period [to] lapse, [a] plaintiff ha[ving] no reasonable way of discovering the wrong perpetrated against him or her, or [a] plaintiff timely fil[ing] a technically defective pleading, but in all other respects act[ing] with the proper diligence.” Id. It is a plaintiff’s burden to show the equitable tolling should be applied, and, in this case, the court determined that the plaintiff fell far short of meeting this burden. The court noted that the ticket contract clearly indicated that federal court was the proper venue, which is understandable because claims arising from accidents on ships are subject to federal courts’ admiralty jurisdiction. Moreover, the court pointed out that the plaintiff delayed in bringing suit in state court and further delayed in serving Carnival. Under these circumstances, the court concluded that the plaintiff had no grounds for seeking that the statute of limitations imposed by the ticket contract should be tolled. Accordingly, the court granted Carnival’s motion for summary judgment.

Pettit teaches a few important lessons. First, be wary of small print. Indeed many tickets contain binding contractual provisions that consumers accept simply by virtue of accepting the services. Second, make sure to take timely action. Although the plaintiff in this case may have been surprised that the ticket provided a shorter limitations period than Florida state law, there is no excuse for needlessly delaying filing suit. Finally, and most important of all, make sure to find counsel experienced in the sort of litigation you’re pursuing. Indeed the problems here may have been avoided if the plaintiff had the assistance of counsel experienced with filing suits involving cruise ships. The South Florida cruise ship accident attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have represented many injured cruise ship passengers and are experienced with the nuances associated with these types of claims. If you’ve recently been injured on a cruise and are considering your legal options, feel free to contact us for a free case consultation.

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