499 U.S. 585 (1991), 89-1647, Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc. v. Shute

Docket NºNo. 89-1647
Citation499 U.S. 585, 111 S.Ct. 1522, 113 L.Ed.2d 622, 59 U.S.L.W. 4323
Party NameCarnival Cruise Lines, Inc. v. Shute
Case DateApril 17, 1991
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 585

499 U.S. 585 (1991)

111 S.Ct. 1522, 113 L.Ed.2d 622, 59 U.S.L.W. 4323

Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc.



No. 89-1647

United States Supreme Court

April 17, 1991

Argued Jan. 15, 1991




After the respondents Shute, a Washington State couple, purchased passage on a ship owned by petitioner, a Florida-based cruise line, petitioner sent them tickets containing a clause designating courts in Florida as the agreed-upon fora for the resolution of disputes. The Shutes boarded the ship in [111 S.Ct. 1523] Los Angeles, and, while in international waters off the Mexican coast, Mrs. Shute suffered injuries when she slipped on a deck mat. The Shutes filed suit in a Washington Federal District Court, which granted summary judgment for petitioner. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding, inter alia, that the forum-selection clause should not be enforced under The Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1, because it was not "freely bargained for," and because its enforcement would operate to deprive the Shutes of their day in court in light of evidence indicating that they were physically and financially incapable of pursuing the litigation in Florida.

Held: The Court of Appeals erred in refusing to enforce the forum-selection clause. Pp. 590-597.

(a) The Bremen Court's statement that a freely negotiated forum-selection clause, such as the one there at issue, should be given full effect, 407 U.S. at 12-13, does not support the Court of Appeals' determination that a nonnegotiated forum clause in a passage contract is never enforceable simply because it is not the subject of bargaining. Whereas it was entirely reasonable for The Bremen Court to have expected the parties to have negotiated with care in selecting a forum for the resolution of disputes arising from their complicated international agreement, it would be entirely unreasonable to assume that a cruise passenger would or could negotiate the terms of a forum clause in a routine commercial cruise ticket form. Nevertheless, including a reasonable forum clause in such a form contract well may be permissible for several reasons. Because it is not unlikely that a mishap in a cruise could subject a cruise line to litigation in several different fora, the line has a special interest in limiting such fora. Moreover, a clause establishing ex ante the dispute resolution forum has the salutary effect of dispelling confusion as to where suits may be brought and defended, thereby sparing litigants time and expense and conserving judicial resources. Furthermore, it is likely that passengers purchasing tickets

Page 586

containing a forum clause like the one here at issue benefit in the form of reduced fares reflecting the savings that the cruise line enjoys by limiting the fora in which it may be sued. Pp. 590-594.

(b) The Court of Appeals' conclusion that the clause here at issue should not be enforced because the Shutes are incapable of pursuing this litigation in Florida is not justified by The Bremen Court's statement that

the serious inconvenience of the contractual forum to one or both of the parties might carry greater weight in determining the reasonableness of the forum clause.

Id. at 17. That statement was made in the context of a hypothetical "agreement between two Americans to resolve their essentially local disputes in a remote alien forum." Ibid. Here, in contrast, Florida is not such a forum, nor -- given the location of Mrs. Shute's accident -- is this dispute an essentially local one inherently more suited to resolution in Washington than in Florida. In light of these distinctions, and because the Shutes do not claim lack of notice of the forum clause, they have not satisfied the "heavy burden of proof," ibid. required to set aside the clause on grounds of inconvenience. Pp. 594-595.

(c) Although forum selection clauses contained in form passage contracts are subject to judicial scrutiny for fundamental fairness, there is no indication that petitioner selected Florida to discourage cruise passengers from pursuing legitimate claims or obtained the Shutes' accession to the forum clause by fraud or overreaching. P. 595.

(d) By its plain language, the forum selection clause at issue does not violate 46 U.S.C. App. § 183c, which, inter alia, prohibits a vessel owner from inserting in any contract a provision depriving a claimant of a trial "by court of competent jurisdiction" for loss of life or personal injury resulting from negligence. Pp. 595-597.

[111 S.Ct. 1524] 897 F.2d 377 (CA9 1990), reversed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 597.

Page 587

BLACKMUN, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this admiralty case we primarily consider whether the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit correctly refused to enforce a forum selection clause contained in tickets issued by petitioner Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc., to respondents Eulala and Russel Shute.


The Shutes, through an Arlington, Wash., travel agent, purchased passage for a 7-day cruise on petitioner's ship, the TROPICALE. Respondents paid the fare to the agent, who forwarded the payment to petitioner's headquarters in Miami, Fla. Petitioner then prepared the tickets and sent them to respondents in the State of Washington. The face of each ticket, at its left-hand lower corner, contained this admonition:


App. 15. The following appeared on "contract page 1" of each ticket:


* * * *

3. (a) The acceptance of this ticket by the person or persons named hereon as passengers shall be deemed to be an acceptance and agreement by each of them of all of the terms and conditions of this Passage Contract Ticket.

* * * *

8. It is agreed by and between the passenger and the Carrier that all disputes and matters whatsoever arising under, in connection with or incident to this Contract

Page 588

shall be litigated, if at all, in and before a Court located in the State of Florida, U.S.A. to the exclusion of the Courts of any other state or country.

Id. at 16.

The last quoted paragraph is the forum selection clause at issue.


Respondents boarded the TROPICALE in Los Angeles, Cal. The ship sailed to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and then returned to Los Angeles. While the ship was in international waters off the Mexican coast, respondent Eulala Shute was injured when she slipped on a deck mat during a guided tour of the ship's galley. Respondents filed suit against petitioner in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, claiming that Mrs. Shute's injuries had been caused by the negligence of Carnival Cruise Lines and its employees. Id. at 4.

Petitioner moved for summary judgment, contending that the forum clause in respondents' tickets required the Shutes to bring their suit against petitioner in a court in the State of Florida. Petitioner contended, alternatively, that the District Court lacked personal jurisdiction over petitioner because petitioner's contacts with the State of Washington were insubstantial. The District Court granted the motion, holding that petitioner's contacts with Washington were constitutionally insufficient to support the exercise of personal jurisdiction. See App. to Pet. for Cert. 60a.

The Court of Appeals reversed. Reasoning that, "but for" petitioner's solicitation of business in Washington, respondents [111 S.Ct. 1525] would not have taken the cruise and Mrs. Shute would not have been injured, the court concluded that petitioner had sufficient contacts with Washington to justify the District Court's exercise of personal jurisdiction. 897 F.2d 377, 385-386 (CA9 1990). *

Page 589

Turning to the forum selection clause, the Court of Appeals acknowledged that a court concerned with the enforceability of such a clause must begin its analysis with The Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1 (1972), where this Court held that forum selection clauses, although not "historically . . . favored," are "prima facie valid." Id. at 9-10. See 897 F.2d at 388. The appellate court concluded that the forum clause should not be enforced because it "was not freely bargained for." Id. at 389. As an "independent justification" for refusing to enforce the clause, the Court of Appeals noted that there was evidence in the record to indicate that "the Shutes are physically and financially incapable of pursuing this litigation in Florida," and that the enforcement of the clause would operate to deprive them of their day in court, and thereby contravene this Court's holding in The Bremen. 897 F.2d at 389.

We granted certiorari to address the question whether the Court of Appeals was correct in holding that the District Court should hear respondents' tort claim against petitioner. 498 U.S. 807-808 (1990). Because we find the forum selection clause to be dispositive of this question, we need not consider petitioner's constitutional argument as to personal jurisdiction. See Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288, 347 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring) ("`It is not the habit of the Court to decide questions of a constitutional nature unless

Page 590

absolutely necessary to a decision of the case,'" quoting Burton v. United States, 196 U.S. 283, 295 (1905)).


We begin by noting the boundaries of our inquiry. First, this is a case in admiralty, and federal law governs the enforceability of the forum selection clause we scrutinize. See Archawski v. Nanioti, 350 U.S. 532, 533 (1956); The Moses Taylor, 4 Wall. 411, 427 (1867); Tr. of Oral Arg. 36-37, 12...

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