Cruise lines such as Carnival, NCL, Princess and others have begun inserting foreign choice of law provisions into their seaman crew member employment contracts. This means if a crew member is hurt and wants to bring a claim against the cruise line, foreign law, not U.S. law, is to be applied. The purpose of these provisions is to deprive crew members of the vast rights and benefits afforded under U.S. law and substitute the lesser rights and benefits afforded under foreign law. In short, cruise lines don’t want to pay their seamen employees the benefits due under U.S. law even though these same cruise lines operate from U.S. ports and have their corporate offices in the U.S.
Many crew members have no idea what they are potentially giving up when they sign an employment contract with a foreign choice of law provision. For example, the Carnival and Princess contracts call for the application of Panamanian law. Unlike U.S. law, Panamanian law does not provide for:
- Double Penalty Wages for each day the cruise line failed to pay earned wages after discharge;
- Punitive damages and attorney fees for the willful, arbitrary and capricious denial of Maintenance and Cure benefits;
- Payment of Maintenance until the crew member reaches maximum medical improvement (Panamanian law only provides maintenance benefits for 30 days);
- Strict liability under the doctrine of Unseaworthiness for injuries arising from the cruise line’s breach of its duty to provide a vessel in a condition reasonably suited for its intended use;
- Direct claims against the cruise line for the negligence of fellow crewmembers; and
- Jones Act Negligence claims against the cruise line for injuries and damages resulting from the misdiagnosis and/or malpractice of shipboard and shore side physicians
Despite the cruise lines’ attempt to deprive their seaman crew members’ U.S. legal rights, courts are hostile towards these foreign choice of law provisions. The lawyers Brais & Brias often litigate this issue and have been successful in convincing courts to strike down such foreign choice of law provisions as they violate public policy against employees contracting away their U.S. statutory claims and allowing employers to lessen their maintenance and cure responsibilities.