Cruise Lines Say Dancer's Injury Claims Must Be Arbitrated

By Joyce Hanson
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Law360 (July 21, 2020, 9:35 PM EDT) -- Two Carnival Corp. cruise lines have asked a Florida federal court to send a paralyzed former dancer's negligence case to arbitration, saying he was working under a seafarer's employment agreement requiring that he arbitrate any disputes when his slip-and-fall injury occurred.

Antonio Sisca, a 28-year-old former Italian professional dancer, agreed to arbitrate any claims in Italy before he boarded the Holland America Line ship M/V Vendaam to work as a member of the ship's entertainment crew, according to Carnival companies HAL Maritime Ltd. and Princess Cruise Lines in a motion to compel arbitration filed Monday.

"Princess and HAL have been aggrieved by plaintiff's refusal to submit his claims to arbitration," the cruise lines said. "By refusing to submit his claims to arbitration as provided in the SEA, defendants have been deprived of the benefit and value of the arbitration provision to which plaintiff agreed."

The arbitration section of the seafarer's employment agreement says that any disputes involving Sisca's service aboard the ship, "including but not limited to wage disputes, property damage, personal injury, death or any other claim," must be resolved by binding arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, Princess and HAL said.

But according to Sisca — who initially filed his complaint June 22 in Miami-Dade County court before the cruise lines filed a notice of removal to federal court July 14 — the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 14 announced a no-sail order for cruise ships due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, Sisca said, he was required to stop working aboard the M/V Vendaam, which disembarked all passengers and most crew members March 18, and the seafarer's employment agreement was no longer operative when his injury occurred.

"Plaintiff's accident and injuries occurred on April 23, 2020, or one day after the employment term expired, and while plaintiff was in transit to a ship," according to Sisca's complaint. "Because plaintiff's accident and claim arose after the the employment term expired and while in transit to or from any ship, the terms of the SEA including the arbitration clause are inapt to plaintiff's claims."

His suit claims that he asked on March 18 to be disembarked in Fort Lauderdale and repatriated to Italy via New York's LaGuardia Airport, which at the time was the only international airport authorized by the Italian government for travel to Italy from the East Coast of the United States.

But HAL refused his request and instead kept him aboard the Vendaam against his will, anchored in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, according to Sisca's suit.

Sisca's injury occurred April 23, when the Vendaam finally began deploying lifeboats to transfer European crew members to Princess Cruise vessel the Regal Princess for repatriation out of Southampton, England, after a 10-day ocean voyage, the suit says.

On that day, high winds and rough seas caused the lifeboats to roll violently from side to side while sea water from the crashing waves sloshed inside the boats. Sisca slipped twice and fell "violently" onto his lower back while trying to help a seasick crew member, the suit alleges.

The next day, Sisca reported to the Regal Princess' doctors because he was suffering severe back pain and numbness in his left foot, the suit says. After examining him, a doctor said the direct cause of his back injury was the violent fall, prescribed pain medication to Sisca and declared him fit "to return to normal working duties on next shift," according to the suit.

Sisca kept reporting to the Regal Princess' medical facility to complain of his worsening back condition and neurological symptoms, according to the suit. By April 26, he was experiencing electric shocks shooting down his legs when he walked, yet the ship's staff refused to let Sisca fly to Italy from Bermuda so he could be seen by a spine specialist sooner, the suit alleges.

"By the time the Regal Princess arrived at Southampton on May 5, plaintiff had already become paraplegic and was suffering from complete urinary and bowel incontinence," the suit says.

Sisca remains in a paraplegic state and continues to undergo medical treatment, but has not reached "maximum medical improvement," according to the suit.

Sisca's causes of action arise under the Jones Act, the federal law regulating maritime commerce, as well as U.S. general maritime law. The suit seeks a court judgment against HAL Maritime and Princess Cruise Lines and compensatory damages.

A lawyer for the cruise lines, Jeffrey B. Maltzman of Maltzman & Partners PA, declined comment Tuesday, saying the law firm, Princess and HAL don't comment on pending litigation or arbitration matters.

Counsel for Sisca did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sisca is represented by Julio J. Ayala of Crewmember & Maritime Advocacy Center PA.

Princess and HAL are represented by Jeffrey B. Maltzman and Steve Holman of Maltzman & Partners PA.

The case is Sisca v. HAL Maritime Ltd. et al., case number 1:20-cv-22911, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

--Editing by Kelly Duncan.

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