Rabie Cortez, a California woman on a vacation in Mexico, was sexually assaulted during a complimentary massage. She was in Cancun as part of a carefully orchestrated sales and marketing package tour commonly used by the timeshare industry to seduce potential customers into purchasing prepaid vacation plans. She filed a lawsuit against the Moon Palace Golf and Spa Resort in Cancun as well as three Miami, Florida-based corporations that promoted, marketed, and sold the vacation package. The corporate headquarters in Miami also handles all customer complaints and employs dozens of employees who coordinate the sales and marketing efforts for the property in Cancun.
Her lawsuit for sexual assault and negligent hotel security was filed in Florida state court in Miami-Dade County, where it was summarily dismissed based on “forum non conveniens,” meaning the location where the lawsuit was filed was not the “most convenient” location to litigate it, and that it would be more suitable to file it in Mexico.
When considering a defendant’s motion to dismiss a case to another country for “convenience,” Florida law is supposed to give the plaintiff all the benefit of the doubt that the location where the plaintiff filed the lawsuit is appropriate. The trial court stated that since Ms. Cortez was not a Florida resident and the events transpired in Mexico, her choice to file the case in Miami should be given “less deference” than the Florida defendants’ desire to have the case moved to Mexico.
Not surprisingly, based upon the recent string of pro-defendant/anti victim opinions I have read coming from the Third District Court of Appeal, the trial judge’s ruling was affirmed. It should be noted that the Third’s opinion contained a stinging dissent from Judge Rothenberg, who found the Court’s decision to be legally incorrect for many reasons. In her brilliant dissent, she questioned how the Florida defendants could argue with a straight face that Mexico is a more convenient forum to litigate a United States citizen’s negligent vacation packaging claim when Miami is where the defendants maintain their corporate headquarters; all vacation packages are approved there, all customer complaints are investigated there, and Miami is the operational, managerial, marketing and sales, and record-keeping center for their Mexican hotel where the event occurred.
The Florida’s Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction and heard the case because the Third District Court’s ruling expressly “conflicts with and misapplies” the law. In doing so, the Supreme Court issued a powerful reversal–clarifying the rights of both non-Florida residents as well as foreigners who choose to sue Florida corporations in Florida. The Supreme Court’s opinion found that the Third District court’s analysis was flawed because the Florida defendants failed to satisfy the complex four-prong jurisdictional requirements that must be considered before a case can be dismissed for an inconvenient forum. This opinion makes the flaw in the Third District court’s ruling clear by actually quoting Judge Rothenberg’s dissenting opinion: “harmful actions originating in Florida which may violate duties imposed by Florida Law are properly addressed in Florida courts.”
This ruling is very important because it sends a clear message to all Florida-based companies that they can expect to be held accountable by a Florida jury for their failures to adequately operate and manage their businesses and anywhere in the world in ways that cause harm. Many corporations based in Florida—from the cruise ship industry, theme parks, restaurants, hotels to airplane leasing companies—hide behind the curtain of hope that if their actions or products harm someone overseas, they will be able keep potential lawsuits away from the US consumer protection laws in favor of those of some other countries who have little or no recognizable legal system to address these types of claims.