By now we’ve all heard of John Travolta’s latest scandal involving a Royal Caribbean cruise line attendant, a neck massage, and some unwelcome frontal exposure. If you haven’t, you really ought to reevaluate how much pop-culture news you read, and catch yourself up on the details here. For those in a hurry, here are the Cliff’s Notes: the Royal Caribbean attendant, Fabian Zanzi, alleges that Travolta requested a neck massage, that he began to give Travolta the neck massage, and that Travolta then exposed himself and “forcefully embraced” Zanzi, causing him “pain, shock, embarrassment, distress, and fear.” (Compl. ¶ 12).
The cruise line attendant has filed a lawsuit against Travolta for assault and battery, and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In an interesting twist on the run-of-the-mill cruise line arbitration cases we see year after year, however, Travolta and his attorney, Marty Singer, recently attempted to compel arbitration of Zanzi’s claims.
Travolta’s theories supporting his motion to compel were based on two separate arbitration agreements: the one between passenger and cruise line contained on the ticket itself, and the one between cruise line and employee contained in the employment agreement. Impressively, despite the fact that no arbitration agreement existed between Travolta and Zanzi, Travolta attempted to bootstrap the other two arbitration clauses through non-signatory principles, including agency and equitable estoppel. The Court, however, found Travolta’s legal arguments adrift, at sea, off course, or whatever other nautical metaphor you can muster.
As to Travolta’s arguments that his cruise ticket mandated arbitration, the Court rejected that Zanzi was an agent of Royal Caribbean, such that Zanzi could be bound as a non-signatory to arbitrate under the agreement between Royal and Travolta. Although Zanzi may be an agent of Royal Caribbean under traditional principles of agency, the Court goes further in examining whether Zanzi is an agent for purposes of being bound as a non-signatory to an arbitration agreement. In its analysis, the Court noted that the agency theory in the arbitration context requires more than a mere association; in order for a non-signatory agent to be bound to arbitrate, the principal must have signed the agreement with the authority to bind the non-signatory employee in his individual capacity. The Court found no such authority here, thus finding Zanzi’s claim to fall outside of the scope of the arbitration agreement between Travolta and Royal Caribbean. This holding is consistent with the principle that if an agent is assaulted while he is conducting the affairs of the principal, or because of the agency relation, the “resulting cause of action belongs to him and to him only,” and “this right is free from interference by the principal.” See Restatement (Second) of Agency § 374(1) cmt 1.
The Court also rejected Travolta’s “third party beneficiary” argument out of hand, noting that the agreement between Travolta and Royal Caribbean is intended to protect Royal from liability, not to protect Travolta from liability for torts he commits against Royal’s employees. The Court notes that any indirect benefit of the cruise ticket contract to Zanzi, such as receiving tips by virtue of Travolta’s purchase of the ticket and subsequent boarding of the ship, does not provide a basis to compel Zanzi to arbitrate his claims.
Travolta’s next argument was an attempt to piggyback off of Zanzi’s separate claim against Royal Caribbean for false imprisonment, in which Zanzi alleges he was confined for five days after reporting the incident, only being released after Travolta had exited the ship. As is common practice, Royal Caribbean and Zanzi are bound by an arbitration agreement contained in the employment contract. Travolta argued that because Zanzi’s arbitration claim against Royal was “factually interwoven” with Zanzi’s claim against Travolta, that Zanzi was equitably estopped from pursuing litigation against Travolta. The Court also rejected this argument, finding that there was no evidence that Travolta’s act (assault and battery) and Royal’s act (false imprisonment) were substantially interdependent or concerted. The actions, though related in a narrative sense, were not related in the manner necessary to enable Travolta to compel arbitration with Zanzi for his actions that were different in time and nature from Royal Caribbean’s.
What this all means for Travolta is that he will not be able to face his accuser in private arbitral proceedings and that his dirty laundry will be left to hang in a California District Court. Did somebody say settlement negotiations??