Certain cruise lines are depriving Florida resident passengers of their right to a jury trial without their knowledge. Buried in nearly all cruise line boarding passes is what is known as a choice of forum clause. This clause dictates the court where an injured cruise passenger must bring the lawsuit. Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Norwegian (NCL), Regent Seven Seas and Royal Caribbean, require their cruise passengers to file personal injury claims in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
Notwithstanding the forum selection clause, in order for a court to hear a case, it must have what is known as “subject matter jurisdiction” which can only be bestowed upon a Federal court by the U.S. Constitution or Federal statute. In a maritime personal injury case, subject matter jurisdiction can be obtained only two ways – diversity of citizenship or admiralty. A right to a jury trial is dependent upon which type of subject matter jurisdiction is available to the cruise passenger. As explained below, Florida residents do not have the luxury of selecting a type of subject matter jurisdiction which affords the right to a jury trial.
The first way a cruise passenger can establish subject matter jurisdiction is by asserting diversity of citizenship jurisdiction. As a part of diversity of citizenship jurisdiction, a plaintiff has the right to demand a jury trial. In order to have diversity of citizenship jurisdiction, the injured passenger and the cruise line must be citizens of different states or foreign countries and the claim must be worth over $75,000. Though many of the cruise lines are incorporated in foreign countries in order to dodge Federal taxes, their corporate headquarters are located in Florida. For diversity jurisdictions purposes, the Supreme Court determined a corporation is a citizen of the state where they are headquartered. As such, a Federal Court does not have diversity of citizenship jurisdiction in a case involving a Florida citizen and a cruise line headquartered in Florida. Consequently, a Florida citizen cannot invoke the court’s diversity of citizenship subject matter jurisdiction.
The second way a cruise passenger could establish subject matter jurisdiction is by alleging admiralty jurisdiction. A Federal Court almost always has admiralty jurisdiction for a cruise passenger personal injury as all there needs to exist is the accident occurred on the cruise ship or gangway. The citizenship of the parties has no bearing on this form of subject matter jurisdiction. However, unlike diversity jurisdiction, a cruise passenger does not have a right to a jury trial under admiralty jurisdiction. Consequently, Florida citizens do not have a right to a jury trial in a personal injury lawsuit against the above cruise lines. This fact is not mentioned in the cruise boarding pass; and, thousands of Florida residents decide to sail with the above cruise lines without knowing they are signing away their right to have a jury decide their case. Recently, the Florida Supreme Court has a case before it wherein it will decide whether cruise lines can deprive Florida residents of a jury trial by including a Federal Court forum selection clause. This case is due to be decided by the Florida Supreme Court in 2011.