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Maritime Law May Affect Plaintiffs Rights in Cruise Ship Actions, Lupola v. Lupola, Case No. 1D15-2187 (Fla. 1st DCA 2015)

Normally, under Florida statute, plaintiffs in negligence lawsuits have four years from the time of the injury to file an action in state court. While this statute of limitations applies to most negligence cases, plaintiffs in cruise ship negligence suits may find themselves subject to other laws that affect their rights, specifically maritime law. Litigants involved in legal actions against cruise lines, as well as other legal actions that include events arising in the seas around Florida, should be aware that maritime law might affect their rights and obligations. As the case below illustrates, one of the many possible differences between Florida and maritime law pertains to time limits.

In Lupola v. Lupola, a woman and her husband were riding a raft that a boat driven by her father-in-law, was pulling. During the trip, the boat executed a maneuver that made the raft go airborne. The raft then hit the water hard enough that its passengers were ejected from the raft and suffered injuries. Less than four years later, the woman sued her father-in-law and the manufacturer of the raft in a Florida state court, claiming that her father-in-law was negligent in driving the boat and that the manufacturer was liable for negligently designing the raft. The defendants asked the court to dismiss the suit, arguing that the action had passed the three-year statute of limitations for negligence actions under maritime law as opposed to the four-year limitations period for negligence suits under Florida statute. The plaintiff responded that, even though maritime law governed her case, the court should equitably toll the limitations period because her husband's attitude kept her from asking for legal advice for an extended period after the accident that caused her injuries. The court granted the defendants' motion and dismissed the case as untimely. The plaintiff appealed.

The First District Court of Appeals of Florida heard the appeal. The court stated that statutes of limitations for negligence actions start running from the time the injury occurred and not when the plaintiff gains knowledge that the act may have violated the law. Therefore, the plaintiff's contention that she did not know her father-in-law's actions may have been negligent until much later was without merit. Additionally, the court stated that equitable tolling applies only when the plaintiff was misled into inaction, was prevented from protecting his or her rights by an extraordinary circumstance, or filed the action timely but in the wrong court. This form of tolling focuses on a plaintiff that reasonably tries to protect his or her rights.

The court of appeals indicated that the plaintiff was required to show conduct that prevented her from filing the suit in court, and not in discovering the claim. The plaintiff, in this case, argued that her husband's actions kept her from realizing that she may have had a claim, not that her husband kept her from filing a lawsuit. The court of appeals determined that the plaintiff was not prevented from taking legal action to obtain compensation for her injuries and, therefore, equitable tolling did not apply. Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court's decision to dismiss the case as untimely under maritime law.

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