Eleventh Circuit Upholds Forum-Selection Clause

In DeRoy v. Carnival Corp., 2020 WL 3525536 (11th Cir. June 30, 2020), the Eleventh Circuit upheld a forum-selection clause requiring litigation of claims in federal court.  Plaintiff-Appellee Carmela DeRoy sued Defendant-Appellant Carnival Corporation after she injured her foot on a rug while onboard the Carnival Valor.  The contract DeRoy entered into when she booked her ticket had a forum-selection clause requiring all litigation to proceed in federal court “if federal jurisdiction lies for the claim.”  DeRoy simultaneously sued Carnival in both state and federal court alleging a single negligence count against Carnival.

In her federal action, DeRoy attempted to plead her case to avoid invoking federal jurisdiction.  DeRoy “devoted the majority of her [federal court] complaint to attempting to establish that the district court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction—whether diversity, federal-question, or admiralty jurisdiction—to adjudicate her claims.”  DeRoy noted that both she and Carnival were citizens of Florida, so no diversity jurisdiction existed.  She next pointed out that, since she brought a negligence claim only, federal-question jurisdiction was lacking.  And then she asserted that she had elected to bring her in personam negligence action at law—not in admiralty.  So, DeRoy asserted, admiralty jurisdiction did not exist, because admiralty jurisdiction does not extend to in personam claims brought at law.  DeRoy then moved to dismiss the federal case for lack of jurisdiction, so she could permissibly proceed with the state court suit under the forum-selection clause.

In an opinion authored by Judge Robin Rosenbaum, the Eleventh Circuit rejected DeRoy’s “creative effort” to avoid the contract’s forum-selection clause.  The court held that the forum-selection clause’s plain language required that federal court is the only option for DeRoy’s suit because jurisdiction “could lie in federal district court.”  The court determined that, even though DeRoy did not explicitly invoke admiralty jurisdiction, and in fact intentionally attempted to plead around it, her complaint is subject to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(h)’s provision rendering her claim an admiralty or maritime claim.

The court analyzed admiralty jurisdiction and found that it covers personal-injury claims like DeRoy’s that occur onboard cruise ships at sea.  The Constitution provides that the federal judicial power “shall extend . . . to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction.”  U.S. Const., Art. III, § 2, cl. 1.  Under 28 U.S.C. § 1333, district courts enjoy ‘“original jurisdiction,’ exclusive of the courts of the States, of:  (1) Any civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled.”  The Eleventh Circuit has held that when cruise-ship passengers bring personal-injury claims for injuries that occur at sea, those claims fall squarely within the admiralty jurisdiction of the district courts.  Caron v. NCL (Bahamas), Ltd., 910 F.3d 1359, 1365 (11th Cir. 2018).

Because DeRoy’s negligence claim met the criteria for federal admiralty jurisdiction, the court enforced the forum-selection clause.

Posted by Margaret Flatt O’Brien.

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