When a cruise ship's boiler exploded, six crew members were killed, and
four more were seriously injured. Those four, and family members of the deceased
workers, sued for back pay and damages under the Jones Act and general maritime
law, contending the employer was negligent. But the case was very complicated:
The employer was a Norwegian company, the employees are or were citizens of
the Philippines, and the accident happened in the Port of Miami, Florida.
What happened. On May 25, 2003, the boiler of the cruise ship Norway
exploded, killing Mari-John Bautista and several of his co-workers, and injuring
others. The injured crew members and family representatives of the deceased
sued in a federal district court in Florida. There, the employer testified that
all the crew members had signed the same employment contract in the Philippines,
which required them to submit any employment disputes to arbitration. The crew
members/families argued that they should not be bound by mandatory arbitration,
because seamen's employment contracts are exempt under the Federal Arbitration
The district judge ruled that because none of the crew members was a U.S. citizen,
and FAA is a U.S. law, the plaintiffs were covered instead by the United Nations
Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards. Originally
signed in 1958, that act covers potential arbitration of matters involving one
or more nations (three, in this case). The plaintiffs appealed that ruling to
the 11th Circuit, which covers Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.
What the court said. Appellate judges noted that the 11th Circuit had
not faced a similar case in the past, so this situation was one of what is called
"first impression." However, the 5th Circuit had considered the question--of
whether the FAA exemption of seamen's employment contracts apply to arbitration
agreements covered by the Convention act--in a 2004 case. Following the
5th Circuit's lead, judges held that the exemption does not apply to the
plaintiffs. The court reasoned that the Convention act "generally establishes
a strong presumption in favor of arbitration of international commercial disputes."
So the plaintiffs must take their cases to arbitration. Bautista et al. v.
Norwegian Cruise Line and Star Cruises, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th
Circuit, No. 03-15884 (1/18/05).
Point to remember: It's likely this would have been seen as
an international case even if the ship had been owned by a U.S. company, because
the plaintiffs were citizens of the Philippines.