11 Circuit Court of Appeals Rules United States Seaman Subject to Mandatory Arbitration Provision Despite the Jones Act

gavelIn a recent decision from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Alberts v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 15502 (5th Cir. 2016), reflecting the pro-arbitration philosophy of the courts, seamen have been given yet another big setback in the pursuit of their right to a jury trial granted to them by the United States statute, the Jones act, 46 U.S.C. § 30104.

The case of Alberts v. Royal Caribbean Cruises involved a crew member working for Royal Caribbean Cruise lines, a Miami-based cruise ship company, who was a United States citizen and resident. There are not many United States citizens working aboard these foreign-flagged cruise ship companies. The crew member brought a case against the cruise line company pursuant to the Jones Act, which allows an employee to sue his or her employer for negligence. The Jones Act is a special grant of a party by Congress, enacted in 1920 to help protect workers on ships due to the unique nature of their employment.

Recognizing that seamen are clearly on unequal bargaining power with their employers, this congressional act is remedial legislation designed to provide seamen with a remedy when they get injured due to negligence on the part of their employer. The Jones Act, being remedial legislation, provides that the employer is responsible for an injury if negligence played any part, no matter how small, in producing the injury. In order to further protect seamen against overreaching by unscrupulous employers, in addition to granting seamen the right to a jury trial for their claim, the act prohibits an employer from contracting away its liability for negligence under the .

However, the right to a jury trial has been taken away by enforcement of arbitration provisions employers have inserted into the employment agreements. The arbitration provisions require crew members to arbitrate any of their disputes, denying them a right to a trial by jury against the employer. All of the major cruise line companies are utilizing these arbitration agreements to deny these crew members the right to a jury trial.

The arbitration agreements are enforceable in accordance with the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (the “New York Convention”).

In order for the convention to apply, and a seaman’s employment agreement compelling arbitration to fall within the convention and require arbitration, there are four jurisdictional prerequisites that must be met for a court to compel arbitration. They are as follows:

  1. There is an agreement in writing within the meaning of the Convention;
  1. The agreement provides for arbitration in the territory of a signatory of the Convention;
  1. The agreement arises out of a legal relationship, whether contractual or not, which is considered commercial; and
  1. A party to the agreement is not an American citizen, or that the commercial relationship has some reasonable relation with one or more foreign states.

When a foreign citizen is involved as the crew member, the foreign nature of the transaction is clearly satisfied. However, there was a difference of opinion as to what would happen when a United States citizen is the crew member, and the employer is also considered a United States citizen due to having its principal place of business in the United States such as Royal Caribbean Cruise lines.

In this United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit case, Alberts got around the foreign requirement by stating that the fact that the cruise ship itself traveled in international waters contemplated performance in other countries, satisfying the international relationship requirement. Accordingly, despite the applicability of the Jones Act, and its provisions precluding contracting away a seaman’s right to a jury trial and attempts to lessen liability, the court in this case ruled the arbitration provision was enforceable and the cruise ship crew member would be required to arbitrate his claims.

This is yet another setback for seamen, especially United States citizens who would not contemplate a court could consider their relationship to be an international or foreign relationship with a cruise ship company based in Miami.

Our maritime lawyers at Rivkind and Margulies, P.A., continue to fight for crew members, whether in court or arbitration, and continue to pursue all arguments to avoid arbitration, and to avoid employers of seamen trying to escape their responsibilities under this remedial legislation called the Jones Act. Our law firm is committed to helping crew members receive justice.

The case is Robert M. Alberts v. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., case number 15-14775, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

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