Publication year2021


John P. Kavanagh Jr.

[Page 997]


by John P. Kavanagh, Jr.*

The cases discussed herein represent decisions from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, as well as district courts within the Circuit, issued in 2020. While not an all-inclusive list of maritime decisions during that timeframe, the Author identified and provided summaries of key rulings of interest to the maritime practitioner.1


A passenger injured aboard the Carnival ship VALOR filed simultaneous state and federal complaints. However, her eschewal of federal jurisdiction—followed by an immediate motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit based on lack of jurisdiction—did not impress the Eleventh Circuit.2 The court of appeals noted the plaintiffs unique approach to her personal injury claim: "This case comes before us in a peculiar procedural posture, with DeRoy's tacit invocation of federal jurisdiction—by filing her complaint in the district court—coupled with DeRoy's explicit disavowal of federal jurisdiction in her allegations and claim for relief."3 Rejecting these machinations, the court held that, when admiralty jurisdiction exists based on the facts and substance of the claims alleged, a plaintiff cannot disavow the existence of jurisdiction by failing to specifically reference or acknowledge the same.4

As noted above, two complaints were filed, the first in United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, the underlying suit herein, with a second lawsuit simultaneously filed in the Eleventh

[Page 998]

Circuit Court in and for Miami-Dade County, Florida. Each complaint contained a single negligence claim against Carnival, the owner and operator of the M/V VALOR.5

The Carnival ticket contract contained a forum selection clause, requiring any suit to be filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, "[I]f it was jurisdictionally possible to do so[.]"6 The clause states in pertinent part:

[I]t is agreed by and between the Guest and Carnival that all disputes and matters whatsoever arising under, in connection with or incident to this Contract or the Guest's cruise, including travel to and from the vessel, shall be litigated, if at all, before the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami, or as to those lawsuits to which the Federal Courts of the United States lack subject matter jurisdiction, before a court located in Miami-Dade County, Florida, U.S.A. to the exclusion of the Courts of any other county, state or country.7

The federal lawsuit filed by Ms. DeRoy observed that diversity jurisdiction did not exist, since both she and Carnival were citizens of Florida. Her negligence-only complaint precluded federal-question jurisdiction.8 in an attempt to avoid admiralty jurisdiction, Ms. DeRoy pled her in personam action "[A]t law, not in admiralty. So, DeRoy concluded, admiralty jurisdiction did not exist, since admiralty jurisdiction does not extend to in personam claims brought at law."9

The trial court determined that the "saving—to—suitors clause" of 28 U.S.C. § 133310 allowed the plaintiff to essentially plead around the federal court's admiralty jurisdiction. The plaintiff's motion to dismiss was granted.11

The Eleventh Circuit rejected this position, and noted that an injury to a passenger aboard a cruise ship "falls comfortably within the admiralty jurisdiction of the district court . . . ."12 Further, while the plaintiff is the master of her complaint, the court is not bound by a party's wordsmithing: "[i]t is the facts and substance of the claims alleged, not

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the jurisdictional labels attached, that ultimately determine whether a court can hear a claim."13 Further, once it is established that the federal court has jurisdiction, it has a duty to proceed with the case in its exercise of that jurisdiction.14

The court next dispensed with the suggestion that the plaintiff's failure to make an election under Rule 9(h) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure15 voided admiralty jurisdiction.16 Rule 9(h) provides that a claim cognizable only in admiralty or maritime jurisdiction is treated as an admiralty or maritime claim whether or not an election is made.17 Because Ms. DeRoy's negligence claim fell only within the federal court's admiralty jurisdiction, the district court properly exercised admiralty jurisdiction in the case whether DeRoy invoked it or not.18

Likewise, the "savings-to-suitors" clause did not provide any escape from federal jurisdiction.19 The court discussed this in the context of the right to jury trial, which is generally unavailable when a case proceeds solely in admiralty.20 In the instant case, however, this was not an issue because Carnival agreed to a jury trial.21

Finally, the court cited the language of the forum selection clause, which unequivocally requires that suits be filed in the federal courts for the Southern District of Florida.22 The court rejected the suggestion that the alternative language in the forum selection clause—allowing suit in Florida state court if federal jurisdiction was not available—was an "invitation for litigants to forum shop."23 "Litigants who wish to be in state court cannot simply refuse to set forth the correct federal jurisdictional ground. DeRoy's construction would . . . effectively nullify the forum-selection clause[.]"24

The Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court's order of dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings soundly within the

[Page 1000]

confines of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.25

in a fairly cursory opinion, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court's decision to dismiss a lawsuit brought by cruise ship passengers when their trip was cancelled due to Hurricane Harvey.26 A group of passengers were slated to leave Galveston, Texas aboard a Royal Caribbean vessel in August 2017. The approach of Hurricane Harvey prompted cancellation of the cruise, although Royal Caribbean did not make the final decision until the day the cruise was set to depart. Plaintiffs were in Galveston and dealt with hurricane conditions upon their arrival and during the subsequent stay. Suit was filed against Royal Caribbean based on negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress.27

The district court highlighted the failure of plaintiffs to identify any harm suffered in the original complaint; leave was granted to amend.28 The second effort was likewise faulty: "Though the amended complaint added that each appellant suffered 'physical and emotional damage,' it still failed to specify their individual physical and emotional injuries."29 The matter was dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.30 On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit agreed that the failure of the individual appellants to specifically identify the physical or emotional damage suffered rendered the complaint deficient under the now familiar Iqbal standard.31

The appellants also sought recovery for the expenses incurred by the unexpected stay in Texas. These allegations of financial harm were barred under the "economic-loss rule."32 As explained by the court, the economic loss doctrine will not allow for recovery of economic losses unrelated to physical damages.33 "The appellants do not allege that their

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out-of-pocket expenses stem from physical injury to their person or their property—they allege purely economic losses stemming from the additional time they spent in Texas."34

Sexual assaults aboard cruise ships continue to be a problem, and lawsuits seeking damages for such illicit activities populated the dockets of the south Florida courts. in two related decisions, the Southern District of Florida addressed motions to dismiss claims involving assaults against passengers.35 In Doe v. Carnival Corp.,36 the mother of a fifteen-year-old cruise passenger filed suit against Carnival Corporation (vessel owner/operator) and Dufry Cruise Services, LLC (concessionaire aboard ship), alleging that her child was sexually assaulted by two employees of Dufry. The plaintiff alleged numerous counts against both Carnival and Dufry, including a claim that Carnival was negligent in its training and monitoring of the crew. Punitive damages were requested in the complaint's prayer for relief.37

The court assessed the Rule 12(b) motion to dismiss under the familiar Iqbal and Twombly standards.38 To survive a motion to dismiss, the complaint must state sufficient factual matter to be plausible on its face, and contain "content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged."39 The plaintiff's complaint was actually fairly detailed in its factual allegations concerning negligent training and supervision of the alleged attackers.40 However, the allegations were leveled against Carnival, not the employer: "Plaintiff does not explain how Carnival, rather than Dufry, was supposed to train and monitor its non-employees."41 Based on this, the court held that the plaintiff's negligent training and negligent monitoring claims against Carnival were due to be dismissed.42

With respect to punitive damages, the district court surveyed the current jurisprudence in the Eleventh Circuit, which still finds as its

[Page 1002]

touchtone the Amtrak43 decision.44 Based on Amtrak and its progeny, the district court agreed that punitive damages are available in exceptional circumstances, such as intentional misconduct.45 Accordingly, the motion to dismiss punitive damages was denied, as the allegations of sexual assault upon a minor, if proved, certainly qualify as exceptional circumstances.46

The second published decision addressed similar motions to dismiss filed by the co-defendant, Dufry.47 Recall that Dufry was a contract vendor aboard the Carnival vessel, and its employees were the alleged attackers of the minor...

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