Alien Slaves and Forum Non Conveniens

Alien Slaves and Forum Non Conveniens

The Southern District of Florida last week rendered an interesting case involving alleged international trafficking of Cuban aliens to Curaçao where they were slave laborers. The case of Licea v. Curacao Drydock Co. focused on whether the case should be dismissed on the grounds of forum non conveniens.

Plaintiffs are three Cuban nationals who are now residents of Florida. The complaint alleges they suffered an arduous ordeal, as follows: The Defendant and the Cuban government trafficked the Plaintiffs from Cuba to Curaçao under threat of physical and psychological harm including the threat of imprisonment. Upon arrival in Curaçao, the Plaintiffs’ passports were taken and they were held on the grounds of the Defendant, along with scores of their compatriots. The workers were only allowed to leave those grounds under the guard of Cuban government agents. They were forced to work in slave-like conditions for 112 hours per week performing drydock services on ships and oil platforms. The pay for their work, the complaint alleges, was paid to the Cuban government. (In discovery, Defendant admitted that it credited Cuba on a debt it was owed by Cuba in exchange for the labors of the Cuban workers). The complaint alleges a situation in which the government of Curaçao was likely complicit due to the circumstances in which the Plaintiffs were transported to Curaçao and held there. Further, the Plaintiffs were denied all protections of the laws of Curaçao for injuries they suffered there, and, when any of the workers were injured or complained, they were promptly deported to Cuba and treated as enemies of the state. If they escaped and were caught, they were likewise deported to Cuba and punished. Plaintiffs, however, successfully escaped the Defendant’s drydock facility, and were hunted by Defendant and agents of the Defendant within Curaçao and by the agents of the Cuban government all the way to Colombia, where they were granted political asylum. The United States then granted Plaintiffs parole to enter the United States.

Plaintiffs’ principal claims are that the Defendant and its government agents and co-conspirators violated the laws of nations by trafficking them from Cuba to Curaçao and by holding them and forcing them to work there. The main thrust of their action travels under the Alien Tort Statute…. In this case, Defendant has not met its burden to provide evidence that convinces the court that material injustice would result should this court exercise its jurisdiction in this matter. To the contrary, this Court determines that justice will best be served by its hearing this action in the Southern District of Florida….

Here … the only proposed alternative forum is one in which the Plaintiffs allege they only ever went to forcibly, and one in which they allege they never lived as free men. Courts have recognized that a forum where a plaintiff suffered trauma is inadequate. Here there is more than trauma. If the current facts did not make Curaçao inadequate, it certainly would be an undue prejudice or inconvenience to make these Plaintiffs go to the country they allege they were trafficked to, held in captivity, and face ongoing danger. A forum non conveniens dismissal in these circumstances would not pass the “ultimate inquiry” of serving not just the convenience of the parties, but also the “ends of justice”, and so is not warranted.

The private interest factors to be considered are the relative ease of access of proof, ability to obtain witnesses, and all other practical problems that make trial of a case easy, expeditious and inexpensive. In this matter, Defendant is in Curaçao. However, Plaintiffs are all in Florida. The alleged injuries to Plaintiffs for forced labor occurred in Curaçao. On the other hand, the trafficking took place internationally and in Cuba, as well as in Curaçao….

Local interest in the controversy requires more examination. As stated before, the government of Curaçao has a general interest in regulating its corporations and enforcing its labor laws. This interest augurs towards it as a forum. However, Curaçao’s more particularized interest in this case, stemming from any allegations that it was complicit in, acquiesced in, or failed to stop the alleged abuses of such a serious and explosive nature, is not seen by this Court as a local interest factor that militates towards Curaçao.

Further, any interest that a forum in Curaçao may have is countered by the public interest factors this jurisdiction has in the matter. This case concerns alleged violations of international human rights norms of concern to all nations and that the Alien Tort Statute empowered this Court to address. It concerns an alleged act of international trafficking. It concerns the human rights of people who have been Cuban citizens, an issue of concern to many members of this community. It concerns the foreign policy interests of the United States as expressed in the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, and the interests of Congress expressed in the RICO statute. All these public interest factors militate in favor of this Court’s retention of this matter.

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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Full disclosure: my grandmother was born in Cuba and left there around 1910. So it is not an anti-Castro thing that prompts this post. Rather, from the writings of my great-grandfather, I can tell you of horrendous treatment that persons have had in being trafficked around the islands. One story ended with my grandfather grabbing a stick and telling the owner of the plantation who had a whip and telling the owner to leave him be or my grandfather would kill him right there. I am absolutely overjoyed by this moving story of flight from slavery to freedom. Anyone who has read a slave narrative I hope would be terribly moved by what is described above. The complicity of states in this treatment of these humans also reminds me of the importance of human rights. I am happy to see that the US court seems willing to address this case because of the story of the horrendous treatment of these people. I must admit that the Cuba connection that the court explicitly cites suggests that in other settings (where Cuba was replaced by say Brazil) the willingness to take such a case might not be so significant. I wish that… Read more »