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One of the most common and costly mistakes that a passenger injured on a cruise ship makes is hiring a lawyer who may be unfamiliar with the complex legal issues involved in suing a cruise line, such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Celebrity, Holland America, Disney, Princess, and others.

VENUE-SELECTION CLAUSE

Chief among the major legal traps is the venue selection clause, which stipulates where in the world the case has to be filed to preserve the legal claim and the passenger’s rights. This requirement takes many passengers and their attorneys by surprise, and our cruise ship accident attorneys see case after case dismissed by courts around the country when the provisions are not strictly followed.

For example, in a case we did not work on, Alicia Jennings claimed that she was injured while aboard the M/V Carnival Magic, one of Carnival’s cruise ships. Ms. Jennings boarded the ship in Galveston, Texas, and claimed she fell on a large puddle of water on the deck. She hired a lawyer who sued Carnival, claiming that it was a case of “negligent and proximately caused… injuries and damages.”

Carnival responded that when she booked her cruise, she received an email with a “Guest Confirmation,” setting forth the terms and conditions of the Cruise “Ticket Contract.” Carnival contended that in addition to providing details about the cruise’s itinerary, the Guest Confirmation contained information that detailed “the proper venue in which to file suit.”  

Candidly, I doubt that Ms. Jennings read this information, or that she understood it if she did read it. I don’t think the average person understands what a venue-selection clause means, or what “proper venue in which to file suit” means. Heck, many lawyers do not understand it–as evidenced by the fact that Ms. Jennings’s lawyer filed suit in the wrong court.

Carnival, like most cruise lines, takes their cruise ship Ticket Contract seriously as a “legally binding contract,” and they use it to shield themselves from lawsuits by injured passengers. Specifically, buried deep in the ticket is the following language:

[I]t is agreed by and between the Guest and [Defendant] that all disputes and matters whatsoever arising under, in connection with or incident to this Contract or the Guest’s cruise … shall be litigated, if at all, before the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami, or as to those lawsuits to which the Federal Courts of the United States lack subject matter jurisdiction, before a court located in Miami-Dade County, Florida, U.S.A. to the exclusion of the Courts of any other county, state or country.

Carnival, relying on their Ticket Contract’s forum-selection clause, filed a Motion to Transfer Venue to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, Miami Division, under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), which coincidentally is not far from Carnival’s headquarters. For some reason, Ms. Jennings’s lawyers did not respond to Carnival’s motion–perhaps because they realized that in this instance Carnival was correct.

Federal court judges are required to determine if a forum-selection clause contained in a passenger’s cruise ship Ticket Contract is valid and enforceable before ruling on a Motion to Dismiss. That is because not all forum-selection clauses are enforceable since there are certain situations in which they are unreasonable under the circumstances. In cruise ship cases specifically, courts are supposed to enforce them, unless it can be shown that the clause would be “fundamentally unfair and therefore unreasonable” under the particular circumstances–such as fraud, a “grave inconvenience” that would deprive the injured passenger of justice, or that the clause violates a “strong public policy.”

The wording of the ticket in Ms. Jennings’s case was nearly identical to language approved by the United States Supreme Court in Carnival v. Shute, where the court ruled the clause enforceable. Faced with these types of similarities to Shute, other courts have routinely found such forum-selection clauses to be enforceable.

ENFORCING THE FORUM-SELECTION CLAUSE

Once a court determines that a forum-selection clause is valid and enforceable, it should consider whether or not to transfer the case to the requested venue–in this case, Miami. The law on this is also pretty clear that the court should transfer the case to the forum specified in the “clause” unless there exist “extraordinary circumstances unrelated to the convenience of the parties.”

The legal analysis for this involves three conditions, which the injured passenger has the burden of proving, for the transfer to be unwarranted; regardless of the private interests of the parties, the preselected forum (Miami) is to be favored. While a district court may still consider “public-interest factors” . . . “those factors will rarely defeat a transfer motion, [and] the practical result is that forum-selection clauses should control except in unusual cases.”

Given the long history of case law and the seemingly airtight passenger ticket contracts utilized by cruise lines, it rarely makes any sense to file cases against the major cruise lines–like Carnival, Royal, Norwegian, and Celebrity–in any location other than Miami, Florida.

INVOLVED IN A CRUISE SHIP ACCIDENT

Of course, it is important to have an experienced cruise ship accident lawyer analyze your potential claim and review the relevant passenger ticket. Bear in mind that the cruise lines constantly tinker with and amend the language in their contracts, so one should not simply rely on information found on the internet.

Our personal injury law firm in Miami, FL offers a free and confidential initial consultation with an attorney who knows how to analyze and investigate your potential claim. We recommend that you contact us as soon as possible after your incident–including from the ship–by telephone, toll-free at 1-866-597-4529 or 305-441-0440, or via SKYPE, FaceTime, or email at [email protected].