The major cruise lines insert a provision into their crewmember employment contracts requiring any dispute between them and their seamen employees, including personal injury claims, to resolved at arbitration. Often times these employment contracts require the arbitration to occur outside the United States and to apply foreign law. This means that if a crewmember is injured on the job, he or she will have to bring an arbitration claim in a myriad of foreign locations, but not in the United States and not under United States law. The reason cruise lines are forcing their crewmembers to foreign arbitration is because it is more likely that the arbitrators, who are compensated by the cruise lines, will favor the cruise lines position and will be reluctant to give the injured seamen high money awards.
A treaty called the New York Convention on the Enforcement of Foreign Arbitration Awards allows the cruise lines to compel personal injury claims to arbitration where there is a written agreement to arbitration between citizens of two different countries or where the contract contemplates foreign performance. However, after the parties arbitrate, the treaty provides that a court of competent jurisdiction can review the arbitration award and vacate or find it unenforceable on various grounds including public policy.
A recent case filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida challenges such an arbitration award. In that case, the crewmember brought a claim against a cruise line for an injury sustained by the medical malpractice of the doctor selected by the cruise line to fulfill its obligation to provide medical care to the seaman. The employment contract required the seaman to arbitrate his claim in Monaco under Panamanian law. The arbitration went forward in Monaco and the seaman’s claim was dismissed under Panamanian law. The crewmember filed an action in the Southern District of Florida asking the Federal Court to vacate or, alternatively, refuse to recognize the award the arbitration award.