Sea Sick

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Wajnstat v. Oceania Cruises, Inc. (11th Circuit – Florida)
(A passenger on a cruise ship in the Black Sea became ill and sought medical attention from the ship’s doctor; he was evacuated from the ship and received numerous surgeries; he thereafter sued the cruise line alleging negligent hiring, retention, and supervision of the ship’s doctor; the court held granted the passenger’s motion for partial summary judgment at to the cruise line’s limitation-of-liability defense.)

A cruise ship passenger sued a cruise line for negligence in connection with the ship’s doctor.  The cruise line answered the complaint and raised the affirmative defense that its liability was limited by the Athens Convention (a multilateral treaty dealing with carriage of passengers and their luggage) as incorporated by reference into the limitation-of-liability provision in the passenger’s ticket contract.  The case ended up in federal court as a result of a forum-selection clause in the ticket contract.

The cruise line filed for partial summary judgment based on the limitation-of-liability affirmative defense.  The cruise line’s motion was denied, and the passenger’s cross motion fo partial summary judgment was granted.  The cruise line then filed an interlocutory appeal.

At issue at the trial court level was whether the “non-negotiated limitation-of-liability provision was enforceable.”  Applying the “reasonable communicativeness” test, the District Court held that “the provision was not reasonably communicative because it was confusing and because it required the passengers to parse through treaties and the statutes to determine the limit’s of [defendant’s] liability.”

On appeal, the Court of Appeals ruled that the pretrial order determining applicability of the limitation-of-liability provision was not immediately appealable.

NOTE: Although this case may be specific to its facts, one lesson to be learned is the impact of detailed and convoluted limitation-of-liability language in commercial transactions.  It is particularly difficult to enforce language that requires a special understanding or the incorporation of outside documentation and information.

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