The maritime lawyers here in Miami have been in a state of outrage following a recent decision from an appellate court in the Estate of Tore Myhra v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., Case No. 10-15840 (11th Cir. Sept. 21, 2011).
This case addressed the issue of whether a cruise line could legally enforce a "forum selection clause" transferring the lawsuit to a court outside of the U.S., if the effect of the transfer were to limit the cruise line's liability for personal injury or death occurring on cruises.
There is a federal statute which clearly prohibits cruise lines from doing this. 46 U.S.C. section 30509(a) states that attempts to limit liability by contractual terms in cases where the cruise ship calls on a U.S. port are illegal and unenforceable.
In the Myhra v. Royal Caribbean case, a passenger contracted what is described as a bacterial infection on the Liberty of the Seas cruise ship which led to his death. His widow filed suit in Miami where all lawsuits against this cruise line are filed. But the cruise line moved to dismiss the case, citing terms buried deep in the the passenger ticket which specified the U.K. as the location for the lawsuit.
The lawyers for Mr. Myhra's widow argued that the fine print terms in the passenger ticket were not reasonably communicated to Mr. Myhra, and even if they were, because the U.K. adopted the Athens Convention limiting the liability of cruise lines to a maximum of $75,000 (even including death cases), this clause violated 46 U.S.C. section 30509(a).
But the Eleventh Circuit held that 46 U.S.C. section 30509(a) was not violated. In a tortuously reasoned opinion, it held that because it was not the cruise line limiting its liability, but rather a foreign country (the U.K.) which provided limited damages, the transfer to the U.K. didn't violate 30509(a). This is a rather circuitous argument. After all, it was Royal Caribbean which inserted the U.K. into the ticket as the chosen forum. It did so because it knew that Britain would afford only limited damages to passengers in cases of injury and death.
The South Florida Lawyers blog covered the story. An anonymous reader commented that the decision was "more intellectual dishonesty from the 11th Circuit." Curiously, in a footnote to the decision, the court held that a different result might be reached if the passengers were a U.S. citizen who bought his ticket in the U.S., as opposed to a Brit who bought his ticket in Britain.
The case will be remembered as a result-oriented decision where the xenophobic appellate court's priority was to send the case away from the U.S. based on whatever justification it could scrap together.
But there is more to the story.
Mr. Myhra was not just an average passenger. He was the former Captain (i.e., Master) of several Royal Caribbean cruise ships. He mastered the Monarch of the Seas and was a captain of one of the cruise line's first cruise ships, the Song of America.
By all accounts, Captain Myhra was a skilled mariner, a dedicated Royal Caribbean employee and a well respected captain who was liked by his fellow officers and crew members on the cruise ships on which he served as Master.
In 1998, Captain Myhra bravely sailed the Monarch of the Seas into the harbor in St. Maarten in the middle of the night to bring a sick passenger ashore for emergency medical treatment. But while the cruise ship was sailing out under the command of another officer, the vessel went off course and ran across a reef. The ship sustained heavy damage to the hull and began to take on water. Captain Myhra took command of the ship and ground it to keep it from sinking.
In 1999, Captain Myhra resigned from Royal Caribbean. Even though he was not at the helm when the ship hit the reef, he took responsibility. Thereafter he began a successful camping business called Rose Farm Touring & Camping Park in England with his wife, Susan, and their daughter.
A decade later, Captain Myhra returned to a Royal Caribbean cruise ship not as the captain but as a passenger with his wife aboard the Freedom of the Seas. Captain Myhra was exposed to Legionnaires Disease along with another passenger due to the negligent manner that the cruise line maintained its water supplies. Although infected, he was kept aboard the cruise ship until the end of the cruise, only to die in a public hospital the next day.
Captain Myhra ended his career with Royal Caribbean trying to help a sick passenger in the middle of the night by diverting the cruise into port for emergency medical care, but ended his life sickened on a Royal Caribbean ship as a passenger.
But the irony and injustice does not stop there. Captain Myhra and his wife, Sue, a cruise ship purser herself on Royal Caribbean ships, were "Loyal-to-Royal" friends to the cruise line. They were part of the Royal Caribbean "family." I'm sure CEO Richard Fain knew them both on a first name basis.
But when Master Myhra died due to exposure to Legionnaires Disease on the Royal Caribbean ship, the cruise line treated his widow and child shabbily.
Royal Caribbean denied liability and tried to place the blame elsewhere. It could have stepped up to the plate and paid Ms. Myhra and her daughter a reasonable settlement and wished its friends and family members well. But instead, it paid its defense lawyers in Miami a vast sum of money to try and kick the lawsuit, which Ms. Myhra was forced to file, out of the U.S.
In the end result today, Royal Caribbean beat its former captain's widow and child in a court of law. The appellate court pronounced that their lawsuit for the wrongful-death-by-Legionnaire's-Disease-on-a-Miami-based-cruise-ship is somehow not welcome here in Miami where Royal Caribbean is headquartered.
What a sad spectacle.
Cruise line CEO Fain and President Adam Goldstein earned over $12,000,000 in 2010 while their cruise ships reduced costs across the fleet, including cost reductions due to fewer tests of its potable water on the Liberty of the Seas and other ships. Meanwhile Ms. Myhra is left to seek compensation in the U.K. for her dead husband and the dead father of her daughter.
After attorney fees and costs, the net compensation will turn into peanuts.