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Eleventh Circuit rules that Florida’s wrongful death statute applies to maritime wrongful death case involving cruise ship company based in Florida since decedent’s home state of Wisconsin does not apply its wrongful death statute to deaths occurring outside of Wisconsin

On June 21, 2021, in Goodloe v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd, No. 19-14324, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court ruling that Florida law governed the award of non-economic damages in a maritime case involving the alleged wrongful death of cruise ship passenger. The decedent died of a heart attack after seeing a doctor on board one of the defendant’s cruise ships. The defendant’s estate filed a lawsuit alleging that the defendant’s negligence caused the decedent’s death. At trial, the parties disagreed over the applicable law regarding the plaintiff’s entitlement to non-economic damages in a wrongful death case. General maritime law does not allow non-pecuniary damages for wrongful death, but the Supreme Court has held that state law may supplement general maritime law for damages in wrongful death suits for deaths that occur within state territorial waters. Yamaha Motor Corp., USA v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, 216 (1996). The district court concluded that Florida law applied because the defendant was headquartered in Florida, the cruise ticket had a Florida forum selection clause, and the wrongful death law of Wisconsin, the decedent’s state of residence, expressly does not apply to deaths occurring outside the State. The jury found the defendant liable and awarded pecuniary and substantial non-pecuniary damages. The defendant appealed the award of $3.36 million non-pecuniary damages award, arguing that the district court erroneously applied Florida rather than Wisconsin law in determining the plaintiff’s entitlement to non-economic damages. The Eleventh Circuit looked to the seven-factor list enumerated in U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lauritzen v. Larsen, 345 U.S. 571 (1953), with an eighth factor added in Hellenic Lines Ltd. v. Rhoditis, 398 U.S. 306, 309 (1970), as the starting point for the resolution of choice of laws questions in maritime cases. The aforementioned Supreme Court cases addressed how to resolve international choice-of-law questions in maritime cases, so the Eleventh Circuit paired down the eight- factor list to a six-factor list applicable to domestic choice of law analysis: (1) place of the wrongful act, (2) domicile of the injured, (3) domicile of the defendant, (4) place of contract, (5) law of the forum, and (6) location of the defendant’s base of operations. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that two of the six factors —the domicile/base of operations of the shipowner and the law of the forum—point to Florida, and only one factor-- the decedent’s domicile—points to Wisconsin. The remaining factors were not found to point significantly toward either state. While the Court consequently found that Florida had a “slightly stronger” connection to this case, the difference was not so strong as to be dispositive. Instead, the Court concluded that the balance was shifted in favor of Florida because the Wisconsin wrongful death statute, unlike Florida’s statute, expressly does not apply to deaths occurring outside of its borders.