Arbitration agreements are prevalent in cruise line seafarer contracts today. This practice deprives the injured crewmembers of the fundamental right of a jury and sometimes precludes them of their statutory negligence causes of action provided to them under the Jones Act. However, given the unique nature of maritime employment, in certain situations seafarers can avoid arbitrating personal injury despite the employment contracts requiring arbitration.
Facts of the Case
Recently a Florida Federal Court held that an arbitration provision found in a cruise line seafarer’s employment contract did not govern her on-the-job personal injury dispute. In this case, the seafarer’s contract employer was not the owner or operator of the cruise ship. In other words, the seafarer contracted with one company and then sent to work aboard a cruise ship owned and operated by other companies. Once the seafarer started working aboard the cruise ship, she was managed and directed by the cruise ship’s owner and operator not the company of which she was technically employed by. This unique set of facts allowed the seafarer to allege she was the borrowed servant of the cruise ship owner and operator who were not parties to the employment contract which contained the arbitration provision.
The Court’s Analysis
During the course of her service on the cruise she, the seafarer, was injured by a defective bung ladder. She filed a personal injury lawsuit against the cruise ship owner and operator in Florida state court as was her right pursuant to the savings to suiters clause of the Federal Judiciary Act against the cruise ship operator and owner. Both defendants moved the lawsuit from State court to Federal court and sought dismissal in favor of arbitration under United Nations Convention on the Recognition of Foreign Arbitration Awards. The Defendants argued that although they are not signatories to the employment contract, they could take advantage of the arbitration provision because the injury stemmed from her employment. The Court disagreed.
The Court articulated that before the non-signatory Defendants could be able to take advantage of the arbitration provision, they must prove the seafarer’s claims relied on the employment agreement and are substantially interdependent to the misconduct alleged against the nonsignatory cruise ship owner and operator. The Court found that such was not shown as the negligence alleged against the cruise ship owner and operator was dependent from the contractual relationship between the seafarer and contract employer. Finding that the arbitration clause at issue was inapplicable to the claims brought against the cruise ship owner and operator, the Federal Court denied Defendants’ motion to compel arbitration and remanded the case back to the seafarer’s chosen Florida state court forum.
Import of this Decision
This case highlights that there are situations where cruise ship seafarers can still have a jury trial in their chose of forums although the vast majority of such cases will be arbitrated in accordance with the employment contracts. Therefore, it is very important to read the employment contract and associated documents when bringing a personal injury claim against a maritime tortfeasor.