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Appeals Court Closes Courthouse Doors to Injured American Cruise Line Crewmember

Appeals-Court-Denies-American-Crewmember-Access-to-Court.jpgA Federal appellate circuit court in Atlanta has ruled that a United States crewmember must arbitrate his personal injury claim. This case involved a lead trumpeter who worked for a Miami, Florida based cruise line based aboard a cruise ship whose home port is Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. At the time of the injury, the cruise ship sailed two routes. A Western Caribbean route which called on Haiti, Jamaica and Mexico and an Eastern Caribbean route which called on the United States Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and St. Maarten. No matter which route the cruise ship took, it always began and concluded the voyage in Ft. Lauderdale.

The crewmember brought his personal injury claim against his cruise line employer alleging that it failed to provide him with adequate medical care as required under the Federal Jones Act and the maritime employer’s obligation to provide an injured seaman with medical care. The crewmember allowed alleged the cruise ship was unseaworthy. The cruise line asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit and compel arbitration pursuant to the employment contract which required that all disputes, “be referred to and resolved exclusively by mandatory binding arbitration pursuant to the United Nations Conventions [sic] on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards.” The trial court dismissed the lawsuit in favor of arbitration and the crewmember appealed.

Section 202 of the Federal Arbitration Act requires that a party requesting a court to compel arbitration under the United Nations Convention establish four jurisdictional prerequisites. These prerequisites are: (1) the existence of “an agreement in writing within the meaning of the Convention”; (2) “the agreement provides for arbitration in the territory of the signatory of the Convention.”; (3) “the agreement arises out of a legal relationship… which is considered commercial”; and, (4) “a party of the agreement is not an American,” or the “relationship involved property located aboard, envisages performance or enforcement aboard, or has some other reasonable relation with one of more foreign states.”

The issue argued at appeal was whether the employment agreement “envisages performance… aboard”. The court found that the agreement did simply because the cruise ship touched foreign ports for mere hours at a time. The court’s opinion failed to focus on whether the crewmember actually preformed any music while the ship was in the foreign port. The court, however, was careful in explaining that a contract for employment aboard a ship that starts its voyage from a United States port, travels some time in foreign waters (but does not touch a foreign port) and ends its voyage at a United States port does not envisage performance aboard.

Conspicuously absent from the opinion is any analysis on conflicting legal opinions of the lower courts within the Eleventh Circuit that hold the fourth prerequisite is not met unless the employment agreement requires the American crewmember to preform duties while in a foreign port. It will be interesting to see other Federal Circuit court will follow the Eleventh Circuit’s approach or will follow conflicting opinions of the lower courts.