The Florida State Third District Court of Appeal recently dismissed a passenger's negligence claims against Royal Caribbean, holding that the forum selection clause in the ticket contract provided for exclusive jurisdiction in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Royal Caribbean passenger Jeannette Clarke sued the cruise line in Florida State Circuit Court mere days before the contractual limitation period passed. According to the Florida State Appellate Court, Clarke's timely filing of the suit "acknowledged the ticket contract's provision relative to the application of the one-year limitation period" contained in the ticket contract. But Clarke ignored another key provision in the same contract providing "[a]ll disputes and matters whatsoever arising under, in connection with or incident to this agreement ... shall be litigated, if at all, in and before the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida located in Miami-Dade County, Florida."
Since the Supreme Court's 1991 holding in Carnival Cruise Lines v. Shute that forum selection clauses are "prima facie valid," courts regularly uphold such clauses unless the contesting party can satisfy his or her burden of establishing non-enforcement. Indeed, in August of this year, a Florida court enforced a forum selection clause and dismissed the last of the Costa Concordia suits against Carnival. That court held American plaintiffs "had a meaningful opportunity to review and become acquainted with the forum selection clause in the passage ticket before embarkation on the Costa Concordia," and that their claims must be brought in Italy. See Scimone v. Carnival Corp., No. 2012-26072-CA-01 (Aug. 6, 2014 Fla. 11th Cir. Ct.).
Similarly, here, relying on the forum selection clause in its ticket contract, Royal Caribbean moved to dismiss Clarke's suit for improper venue. But the trial court denied the motion "finding there was no evidence Clarke received the ticket contract before she boarded the vessel." The Appellate Court disagreed, accepting Royal Caribbean's affidavit establishing that before Clarke could board the ship, she had "to check in and accept all of the terms and conditions of the ticket contract." In the first paragraph, the ticket contract advised passengers "in bold and capital letters" that the contract "contains important limitations on the rights of passengers," and "it is important that you carefully read all terms of this contract, paying particular attention to section 3 and sections 9 through 11." Both the forum selection clause and the one year limitation period fell within those provisions.
Whether Clarke "actually received and read the ticket contract" was irrelevant because Royal Caribbean "reasonably communicated" the "existence of important terms and conditions" to Clarke, including the forum selection clause, before Clarke boarded the ship. Nor did Clarke offer any evidence to satisfy her burden to establish non- enforcement.
The Court also rejected Clarke's argument that Royal Caribbean should have removed the case to federal court rather than file a motion to dismiss. Explaining that it had "enforced similar forum selection clauses and ... recognized dismissal as a proper mechanism to enforce a forum selection clause of a cruise ticket," the Court held "Royal Caribbean had no obligation to remove the case to federal court." Royal Caribbean Cruises, LTD v. Clarke, No. 3D14-871 (Fla. 3d DCA Oct. 8, 2014).