The question seems simple enough. But it took an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court to find the answer – an answer that will have a significant impact on the rights of U.S. litigants in lawsuits that have some relationship to events occurring abroad.
The case began when a California resident booked a family vacation at the Moon Palace Golf and Spa Resort in Cancun, Mexico through Palace Resorts’ reservations operations in Miami, Florida. While having a massage at the resort spa, she was sexually assaulted by the male masseuse. She reported the assault and underwent a physical exam in Mexico.
After returning home, Shahla Rabie Cortez, the victim, sued Palace Resorts, Inc. and two related companies that have their principal place of business at the same Miami address. Despite the fact that they were based in Miami, the defendants (Palace Resorts, et al.) persuaded the trial court to dismiss the suit because, the defendants argued, Florida was an inconvenient location for the suit, and the suit should have been filed in Quintano Roo, Mexico.
On appeal, a divided Third District appellate court in Miami affirmed the trial court’s decision. The majority of the appellate court concluded that, because Ms. Rabie was not a Florida resident, her choice of Florida as the location for bringing suit was entitled to no deference, even though the defendants were in Miami.
Diaz Reus petitioned the Florida Supreme Court, which heard argument last year from Diaz Reus partners Carlos Gonzalez and Gary Davidson. In a sweeping opinion, the Supreme Court found that Ms. Rabie was entitled to move forward with her lawsuit in Miami.* This was a huge victory.
The Supreme Court’s ruling placed an emphasis on the high degree of deference owed to a U.S. plaintiff’s choice of forum, regardless of whether the plaintiff resides in Florida or another U.S. state. Only a very strong showing by the defendant can overcome this deference.
The Supreme Court went on to find that courts should always consider “public interest factors,” such as Florida’s interest in protecting others against wrongdoing by Florida residents. In this case, although the assault occurred while Ms. Rabie was on vacation in Mexico, the negligent acts and omissions that resulted in that attack were set in motion in Florida where the defendant companies are based, where they operate, where they collect funds, and where they market vacation packages like the one she purchased.
The public interest aspect of the decision will have a significant impact on how trial courts consider disputes of this nature in the future. The Florida Supreme Court’s decision here signals not only to our courts, but to the international community, that Florida respects the rights of all U.S. citizens to have equal access to our State’s courts.
Florida clearly has an interest in ensuring that its corporate citizens do everything possible to avoid brutal attacks like the one Ms. Rabie endured. The public’s interest is best served by allowing Rabie’s claims to be heard by a Florida court.
*(Case number 08-60103CA04, dated October 6, 2008, Circuit Court, 11th Judicial Circuit, Miami-Dade, Florida)