Many Georgia residents choose to vacation in the Caribbean each year. But what happens if you are injured due to a third party’s negligence while on vacation? Can you file a civil lawsuit against the responsible parties in Georgia, even if the incident occurred outside of the United States?
Cleveland v. Kerzner International Resorts, Inc.
One thing to take note of whenever you check into a foreign hotel or resort is whether you are asked to sign a release. Such releases often contain language requiring you to bring any personal injury or other civil lawsuit in the courts of that country. Courts in the United States will generally enforce these clauses.
Here is a recent example from a case decided by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. A husband and wife from Illinois traveled to the Bahamas, where they stayed at a well-known resort. While patronizing a ride at a water park that was part of the resort complex, the husband got into a serious accident and “suffered injuries to his head, neck, and body, for which he has required extensive medical treatment,” according to court records.
Upon their return to the United States, the couple sued a number of entities affiliated with the resort. The lawsuit alleged “negligence and vicarious liability” in connection with the water park ride where the husband suffered his injuries. Although most of the defendants were located in the Bahamas, one was a Florida corporation, so the plaintiffs filed their personal injury lawsuit in Miami federal court.
The defendants moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that when the couple checked into the resort, they signed a release that stated, “I agree that any claims I may have against the Resort Parties resulting from any events occurring in The Bahamas shall be governed by and constructed in accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, and further, I irrevocably agree to the Supreme Court of The Bahamas as the exclusive venue for any such proceedings whatsoever.”
Under federal law in this country, a “forum selection” clause of this type is enforceable under a legal rule known as “forum non conveniens.” In plain English, this means that a court will decline to hear a case if “an adequate alternative forum is available” and “public interest factors” favor trying the case in said alternative forum. An American court will also strongly favor enforcing a valid forum selection agreement signed by the parties.
In an August 19 opinion the 11th Circuit, affirming an earlier decision by the trial court in Miami, held this rule applied to the plaintiffs case. The forum selection clause was enforceable. The court noted that the resort would have allowed the plaintiffs to “strike” the forum selection clause at check-in “without penalty.” The court also rejected the couple’s “generic” argument that they would be unable to afford an attorney to prosecute their case in the Bahamian courts.