Eleventh Circuit Affirms Motion to Compel Arbitration in Labor Dispute Involving Employee On-the-Job Injury and Medical Negligence Claim under the Jones Act

In Martinez v. Carnival, No. 12-15164 (Feb. 24, 2014), the Eleventh Circuit considered the appeal of a seafarer who was injured in the performance of his duties on a Carnival vessel and who, in pursuing a medical negligence claim against his employer under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30104, sought to avoid compelled arbitration under his employment agreement. The seafarer, Martinez, argued first that the arbitration clause in his employment agreement did not survive the termination of his employment, which occurred before the negligent act that gave rise to his claim. Second, he argued that even if the clause survived, its language did not include claims arising from shore-side medical negligence. After finding that it possessed jurisdiction to hear this appeal of a final decision with respect to arbitration under 9 U.S.C. § 16(a)(3), the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of Carnival’s motion to compel arbitration.

The Jones Act provides in relevant part that, “[a] seaman injured in the course of employment . . . may elect to bring a civil action at law, with the right of trial by jury, against the employer.”  Martinez, a Honduran citizen, was employed as a seaman aboard a Carnival vessel working ten hours per day, seven days a week lifting and transporting heavy items when he suffered an injury to his back. He first reported back pain to his supervisor and later sought medical care when that pain became more severe and extended to his lower extremities. Ultimately, Martinez underwent back surgery in Panama, performed by a Carnival selected physician. Following the surgery, Martinez experienced serious orthopedic and neurological problems, including numbness in both legs, difficulty urinating, need for a catheter, sexual dysfunction, and psychological problems. Carnival then sent Martinez to Miami, where he continued to receive medical treatment. At this point, Martinez filed suit against Carnival in state court asserting claims of negligence, unseaworthiness, and failure to provide adequate maintenance and cure under the Jones Act. His complaint alleged that the physician chosen by Carnival negligently performed his back surgery. Carnival removed the case to federal court and filed a motion to compel arbitration, which was granted by the district court, giving rise to Martinez’s appeal.

In considering Martinez’s first argument, the Eleventh Circuit looked directly to the language of the employment contract, which included an arbitration clause simply stating, “[e]xcept for a wage dispute . . . any and all disputes arising out of or in connection with this Agreement, including any question regarding its existence, validity, or termination, or Seafarer’s service on the vessel, shall be referred to and finally resolved by arbitration . . .” The court examined the contract’s termination clause as well and acknowledged that a plain reading would suggest the contract terminated before the surgery, as Martinez had argued. However, because the arbitration clause clearly indicated that the parties intended to arbitrate disagreements over termination, the Eleventh Circuit found that the district court did not err in refusing to decide this issue. The Eleventh Circuit further concluded that the parties had clearly contemplated some circumstances in which the arbitration clause would survive such termination. For these reasons, Martinez’s first argument failed.

Next, the court addressed Martinez’s argument that the medical negligence claim did not arise out of the employment contract and, thus, the arbitration clause did not apply to it. Here, the Eleventh Circuit firmly reiterated the federal policy of favoring arbitration in labor disputes and applying a presumption of arbitrability where validly formed and enforceable arbitration agreements are ambiguous about coverage of a specific dispute (See Granite Rock Co. v. Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters, 561 U.S. 287 (2010)).  Against this backdrop, the Court analyzed whether the medical negligence claim arose out of the employment contract and concluded that it did.  “In determining whether a dispute arises out of a contract, ‘the focus is on whether the tort or breach in question was an immediate, foreseeable result of the performance of contractual duties’” (Doe v. Princess Cruise Lines, Ltd., 657 F.3d 1204, 1218 (11th Cir. 2011)).  Again citing Doe, the court noted that Martinez’s right to bring a medical negligence claim under the Jones Act was dependent upon his status as a seaman employed by Carnival.  Therefore, the medical negligence claim must have arisen out of or been in connection with his employment contract, and thus subject to arbitration.  Additionally, Martinez’s employment contract specifically referenced Carnival’s Jones Act obligation to provide medical treatment aboard the vessel or ashore, specifically contemplating Carnival’s provision of shore-side medical care for injuries sustained by Martinez on the ship.

Holding that the district court’s order compelling arbitration was a final appealable decision, that the contract termination issue was subject to arbitration, and that Martinez’s Jones Act claim against Carnival for medical negligence did not fall outside the scope of arbitration, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

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