COVID-19 Wrongful Death Suit Against Cruise Line Proceeds to Arbitration

On October 23, in the Southern District of Florida, District Judge Beth Bloom ruled in the case of Isanto v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, LTD. In this wrongful death case, the court dealt with the potential conflict between maritime and Jones Act cases as opposed to the mandates of the United Nations Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (Convention), which is implemented by Chapter 2 of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C. Sec. 201 et seq. 

The decedent was a seaman aboard the Symphony of the Seas vessel, one of the defendant’s cruise liners. After the passengers were disembarked on March 13, the crew was required to remain on the vessel. The crew was encouraged to attend large group gatherings without protective gear or social distancing and the decedent contracted COVID-19, which later caused the decedent’s death.

The convention requires that member nations enforce private arbitration agreements if four requirements are met: 1. The agreement is “in writing” which the court held that the collective bargaining agreement fulfilled; 2. The agreement provides for arbitration in the territory of a signatory, of which the United States was, 3. The agreement arises out of a legal relationship, which the court held the employment contract to be, and 4. One of the parties is not an American citizen, which the decedent was not. However, the additional challenge was made that the case was precluded by the Jones Act. The plaintiff argued that the Jones Act, by way of the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. Sec. 51 et seq., prohibited the removal of the case to federal court from the original court of initiation in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in and for Miami-Dade County, Florida. The court summarily dismissed the plaintiff’s argument, holding that “Eleventh Circuit precedent establishes that a seaman’s Jones Act claim covered by an arbitration clause falling under the Convention may be removed to federal court pursuant to 9 U.S.C. (Sec.) 205.” The district court then stayed the case pending completion of arbitration.

The defendant, Royal Caribbean, is represented by Hamilton Miller & Birthisel LLP. The plaintiff is represented by Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, PA.