If you are injured in a slip-and-fall accident while shopping in a store in Georgia, there is typically no question that you have the right to file a personal injury lawsuit in Georgia. But what happens if you are injured in an accident while on a cruise ship at sea? Where is the proper “venue” to bring a personal injury claim?
Lebedinsky v. MSC Cruises, SA
The answer to this question may be found on your ticket or booking confirmation paperwork for the cruise itself. All cruise operators have some form of “terms and conditions” that address a number of legal issues in the fine print. This typically includes what is known as a “forum selection clause,” i.e., language that states which state or country’s courts will have jurisdiction to hear any legal disputes arising from the passenger’s participation in the cruise.
A recent decision from the Atlanta-based U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Lebedinsky v. MSC Cruises, SA, illustrates how these forum selection clauses work in practice. The plaintiff in this case took a cruise on the MSC Musica, which originated in Italy and made several stops in the Mediterranean. Although the plaintiff paid for her ticket, her daughter actually made the booking and arrangements.
During the cruise, the plaintiff slipped and fell on the ship. She was forced to leave the ship at an Italian port. She subsequently required extensive medical treatment upon her return to the United States.
The plaintiff subsequently filed a personal injury claim against the operator of the cruise ship in a Florida federal court. The defendant moved to dismiss the lawsuit for “improper venue.” It maintained that a forum selection clause contained in its “Passenger Contract” clearly specified that for any cruises “that do not include a port in [the United States],” any legal claims arising under the contract “shall be brought in and be subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the Courts of Naples, Italy.”
The trial court agreed the forum selection clause applied and dismissed the case. On appeal to the 11th Circuit, the plaintiff argued the forum selection clause was unenforceable for several reasons, all of which the appeals court rejected.
First, the plaintiff said the forum selection clause was “not reasonably communicated” to her. That is to say, it lacked “clarity in plain language” and did not “conspicuously call attention” to itself. The 11th Circuit said the language in question was “set out in identical type” as the rest of the overall “terms and conditions” and “under clear headings.” It was therefore reasonably communicated to the plaintiff.
Second, the plaintiff maintained requiring her to pursue her lawsuit in the Italian courts would be “seriously inconvenient.” The 11th Circuit noted that inconvenience, in and of itself, does not make a forum selection clause unenforceable. In this case, the cruise ship “did not travel to any United States port of call.” It started and ended its voyage in Italy. It therefore made more logical sense for the Italian courts to have jurisdiction.
Finally, the plaintiff argued that it would be fundamentally unfair to force her to litigate a personal injury claim in the Italian courts, where her right to recovery would be limited by an international agreement known as the Athens Convention. The mere “possibility of reduced recovery does not amount to fundamental unfairness,” the appeals court said, “and the potential application of the Athens Convention cannot justify the forum selection clause’s invalidation.”