Florida Appellate Case Illustrates How Location and Employment Agreements Affect Personal Injury Cases

If you’ve been injured while physically in the state of Florida, you generally have a right to seek damages from the negligent tortfeasor under Florida’s civil court system. You do not have to be a resident of Florida to file suit against another Florida resident or business entity with relevant connections to Florida. As with all things, there are exceptions. Even when an accident has ties to Florida through location or through business contacts, the legal avenue of relief through Florida’s court system may be unavailable to the injured person.

A Third District Court of Appeal case (No. 3D16-556) addresses the legal issues in an example of this scenario. A cabin steward on a cruise ship alleged severe injuries due to the constant heavy lifting, twisting, turning, and bending he had to perform as a cabin steward. The steward claimed the ship owners were negligent, provided an unseaworthy ship on which to work, failed to provide living subsidies and medical expenses (also known as maintenance and cure in maritime matters), and failed to provide treatment for his injuries.

The company running the cruise line is based in Spain and required all employees to sign an employment agreement with the ship management company, which was based in the Bahamas. The agreement in this lawsuit covered the term of employment, the salary, and jurisdiction over disputes. The section of an employment agreement that covers jurisdiction is known as the forum selection clause. By signing the employment contract, the employee agrees to resolve disputes with the employer in the jurisdiction chosen by the employer. The ship in this case was owned by a Maltese company, and the forum selection clause specified that all disputes must be settled in Malta. The defendant company moved to dismiss the steward’s complaint in Florida, arguing the forum selection clause precluded personal injury actions outside Malta. The steward countered that the clause was unreasonable because the location was inconvenient and expensive for him to litigate. The trial court granted the company’s motion to dismiss, finding the forum selection clause was reasonable under the circumstances because the ship was based in Malta, the owner was incorporated in Malta, and the country of Malta has an interest in regulating its ships and shipowners as well as enforcing seamen’s rights.

The appellate court noted that common law in Florida previously viewed contractual provisions that required disputes to be settled in foreign jurisdictions as impermissible attempts to deprive Florida of subject matter jurisdiction. However, a Supreme Court decision in 1972 (M/V Bremen v. Zapata Off-Short Co., 407 U.S. 1) dismantled this notion, concluding the belief to be a legal fiction. The Florida Supreme Court adopted this approach, allowing suit only when the enforcement of the forum selection clause was unreasonable and unjust, or invalid due to fraud or overreaching by the company. The appellate court pointed out they had issued a prior ruling that said a designated forum would need to amount to “no forum at all” for the clause to be considered void.

The steward stated that Malta is unavailable to him as a realistic forum because he lives in a poor, rural community in Honduras with no savings and no employment. The steward pointed to two cases, one federal and one state, alleging that his clause was unreasonable in the same way that the forum selection clauses in those cases were unreasonable. The appellate court disagreed. The court noted the steward did not provide proof of any type of physical injury or financial hardship to show that he could not travel to Malta. The steward filed the case in Miami, Florida, which is 830 miles away from his stated home, showing he was actually financially and physically able to bring his case away from his home.

The court also did not think there were enough business contacts to keep the lawsuit in Florida. The cruise line in this case was headquartered in Spain, the ship was owned by a Maltese company, and the management company was a Bahamian company. The federal lawsuit cited by the steward involved a Florida-based cruise ship. The court noted that Malta is a signatory to the European Union conventions assuring fair treatment of workers on Malta-flagged ships. Since there was legal relief available in Malta, the forum was considered reasonable. With all of these findings, the appellate court concluded the dismissal was appropriate, and the judgment was affirmed.

The Florida personal injury attorneys at Donaldson & Weston can help you figure out whether legal relief is available to you. Call our office today at 772-266-5555 or 561-299-3999.

More Blog Posts:

Florida District Appellate Court Reviews Future Medical Expenses in Multi-Car Accident Case, Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, November 28, 2016

Federal Circuit Court of Appeal Declines to Find Equitable Tolling in Slip and Fall Case, Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, October 21, 2016

Florida Court of Appeal Allows Injured Motorist to Pursue Additional PIP Payments to Medical Providers, Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, May 18, 2017