Articles Posted in Maritime Law

san-rafael-mendoza-argentina-1-1408867Under Florida law, a plaintiff has four years to bring a suit for negligence. See Fla. Stat. § 95.11. Although the waters surrounding our state play host to a number of accidents, many potential litigants are surprised to learn that the Florida legal rules, including the aforementioned statute of limitations, are often not those that govern disputes that arise on the seas. Instead, maritime law controls many of these cases, and potential litigants should be aware of the implications that these differing legal rules may have for their lawsuits. For instance, these differences were at the heart of a recent decision from Florida’s First District Court of Appeal, Lupola v. Lupola, which concerned the differing statutes of limitations for negligence under maritime and Florida law.

The incident at issue in this case occurred in July 2010. The plaintiff and her husband were on a raft that was being pulled by a boat operated by her father-in -law. At one point during the trip, the raft went airborne and then hit the water with enough force to eject the plaintiff and her husband from the raft. Both the plaintiff and her husband were injured and received medical treatment the same day. A little less than four years later, the plaintiff filed suit against her father-in-law and the manufacturer of the raft, BRP US, Inc., alleging negligence against the former and products liability against the latter. Following discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that since the incident occurred on a waterway, it was subject to the statute of limitations for negligence under maritime law, which is set at three years rather than four years, as under Florida law. See 46 U.S.C. § 30106 (“Except as otherwise provided by law, a civil action for damages for personal injury or death arising out of a maritime tort must be brought within [three] years after the cause of action arose.”) The plaintiff conceded that maritime law applied but argued that her claim was subject to equitable tolling because her husband’s domineering attitude prevented her from seeking legal advice for some time after the accident. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion, finding that the plaintiff had not shown the grounds for equitable tolling, and therefore the action was time-barred. The plaintiff then appealed to the First District.

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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.

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cruise ship in portAs the home of two of America’s three busiest cruise ship ports and the headquarters of numerous cruise companies, the South Florida metropolitan area hosts a considerable amount of litigation involving personal injury at sea. A common surprise to many litigants, however, is that Florida law does not apply in these actions. Instead, federal admiralty law, also known as maritime law, controls the disposition of recovery for those harmed aboard ships on navigable waters. One recent case, Gandhi v. Carnival Corporation, demonstrates how application of admiralty law can limit the possibility of full recovery for those injured on cruise ships and the importance of understanding the nuances of this distinct body of law.

In Gandhi, parents of a child injured aboard a Carnival Cruise Lines ship brought suit against the company, both personally and on their daughter’s behalf. The plaintiffs’ daughter was injured while standing in a ship elevator when one of her arms was drawn into a space into which an elevator door was closing. Although her arm was ensnared, the elevator door attempted to open and close several times, a process which continued until a fellow passenger freed the arm with assistance of a chair leg. As a result, the child suffered a deep laceration to one of her elbows, severing of several tendons, and a fracture. Her father, who witnessed the entire ordeal, further alleged to have suffered severe emotional trauma. The parents brought suit against Carnival in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida for the following claims:  a negligence claim for damages of the minor child, a claim for damages pursuant to the negligent infliction of emotional distress, a damages claim for medical expenses incurred, and a damages claim relating to the loss of filial consortium. Carnival brought a motion to strike provisions from the first claim and to dismiss the remaining claims, and the court, applying admiralty law, sided with Carnival.

First, as a preliminary matter, the court noted that general maritime law controlled in this action and that neither general common law nor state law would be consulted unless there was an absence of maritime law on an issue to be decided. Next, the court moved to the plaintiffs’ claim of negligence. Although Carnival did not move to dismiss this claim, it did move to strike parts of the pleading that appeared to improperly assert the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Generally, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur permits a jury or other fact-finder to infer negligence when the circumstances of person’s injury are of a variety that usually does not occur in the absence of negligence. Although maritime law allows for the inference of res ipsa loquitur to be raised in a claim for negligence, the court agreed that is was improper to raise the doctrine in the pleadings, since res ipsa loquitur is not a cause of action but rather an evidentiary principle on which a court may, in its discretion, later instruct the jury. Next, the court turned to the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. Although Florida law allows a relative bystander to recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress when he witnesses the negligent injury of a loved one and suffers emotional trauma leading to demonstrable physical harm as a result, see Champion v. Gray, 478 So.2d 17 (Fla. 1985), maritime law adheres to the “zone of danger” test. Pursuant to this standard, one may not recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress unless he or she “sustain[s] a physical impact as a result of a defendant’s negligent conduct, or [is] placed in immediate risk of physical harm by that conduct.” Although the father in this case witnessed the injury of his daughter, there were no facts suggesting that he was in an imminent zone of danger. Accordingly, pursuant to the standard set forth in maritime law, the father could not recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
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