In Zapata v. Royal Caribbean, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida explained how a person suing for personal injury can establish that a court has jurisdiction over someone who doesn’t reside in the Sunshine State.
Ms. Zapata died in a tragic bell diving accident during an excursion while she and her husband were vacationing aboard the Explorer of the Seas cruise ship. The couple was in the Bahamas diving with a small group of passengers when Ms. Zapata’s helmet partially filled with water and she began to asphyxiate. Mr. Zapata urged Greg Hartley, the owner of the excursion company (Hartley), to bring his wife to the surface. Hartley then instructed his son to give Ms. Zapata oxygen, but the spare tank was empty.
Mr. Zapata, as personal representative of his wife’s estate, sued Royal Caribbean – the cruise ship company – and Hartley for negligence in federal court in Florida. The complaint asserted that Royal Caribbean operated a joint venture with the excursion company, which operated as its agent. Specifically, Zapata pointed out that Royal Caribbean advertised the excursion on its website, in its promotional material and at an excursion desk aboard the Explorer of the Seas and that the company sold the Zapatas the tickets for the excursion.
Hartley sought to dismiss the claims against it, arguing that the Florida court did not have personal jurisdiction over it because it is located in the Bahamas. The Southern District agreed.
As the court explained, the Florida “long-arm” statute – section 48.193 Florida Statutes – explains personal jurisdiction over nonresidents. “A nonresident defendant may be subject to ‘specific’ personal jurisdiction under subsection 48.193(1) if the person commits any of the acts enumerated in the subsection within Florida and the cause of action arose from the act,” the court instructed. “Alternatively, a nonresident defendant may be subject to ‘general’ personal jurisdiction under subsection 48.193(2) if he engages in ‘substantial and not isolated activity’ within the state.”
Hartley denied that it had any contacts to the state, according to the court, and Zapata failed to counter with any evidence to the contrary. The court rejected Zapata’s argument that he should be entitled discovery in order to gain such evidence. While “jurisdictional discovery” is favored where there is a genuine dispute over the issue, the court noted that Zapata had provided no evidence whatsoever to contradict Hartley’s claim of no contacts in Florida. “Plaintiff merely relies on his formulaic allegations in the Complaint, most of which merely track the language of the Florida long-arm statute,” the court found. Even if Hartley operated a joint venture with Royal Caribbean, the court concluded that those contacts would not be sufficient to bring it under the long-arm statute.
As a result, the court dismissed the claims against Hartley. Zapata’s claims against Royal Caribbean remain to be litigated
Jurisdiction issues often arise in personal injury cases, but are particularly important to be aware of in the cruise ship context where one or more of the responsible parties may be operating out of another state or country. At Anidjar & Levine, our South Florida cruise ship accident lawyers rely on a client-centered approach, combined with vast personal injury experience, to help clients confidently navigate the judicial system’s waters after an accident at sea or on land.
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