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Carl Kanowsky: Out-of-state suits can get messy

It's the Law

Posted: December 16, 2010 8:19 p.m.
Updated: December 17, 2010 8:19 p.m.

I was sitting in my downtown Los Angeles office, located above the Chinese restaurant. The smells of fried food and MSG wafted up to me, and I was thinking about the waitress with the great set of wheels that I saw at lunch when I heard it: RAT-A-TAT-A-TAT.

I jumped and reached for my gat when I realized it wasn’t gunfire — someone was knocking. Thank God it wasn’t a repeat of yesterday.

I opened the door to a big lummox (he didn’t appear too bright — probably related to a lawyer), who said in a thick voice, “You’se Phillip Marlowe?” 

I glanced at the name on the door and looked back at him and replied, “Yeah, Einstein.”  He smiled like he had one on me and said, “You’ve been served, wise guy” and handed me a bunch of papers.

After the moose left, I looked at the lawsuit and called my attorney, Jim Howe of Dewey, Cheatam & Howe. I explained to Jim that the cruise line, Gotcha Cruises, was suing me in Florida. 

You see, I took my dame Blondie on a worldwide journey after the Mafia decided to pay me a million seemolians to keep me quiet.

While on the journey, Blondie caught a chest cold and died. I told my credit card company not to honor the charge because of Gotcha’s negligence. 

I ignored the letters from Gotcha’s attorneys demanding that I pay or else get sued. I asked Jim the attorney if Gotcha could really require me to go to court in Florida.

“Yeah, Marlowe, they can,” he said. 

California courts will generally uphold what are known as “forum selection clauses” in contracts. But I had no idea this little trap was hidden in the four-page contract that was my cruise ticket. That thing was much too boring to read, much less understand. 

Jim, much to my dismay, told me that failure to read the contract or being told that the clause was a “take-it-or-leave-it” were not reasons to not enforce the clause. 

In fact, in the 2004 case, Schlessinger v. Holland America, dozens of passengers who got sick while on an Alaskan cruise tried to file a class-action lawsuit in California against the cruise line. The California Court of Appeal threw out the case, saying that since the cruise contract required litigation to be in Washington, then that’s where the plaintiffs would have to go.

That’s when I got really worried. I had signed a contract to provide protection for this bombshell starlet Lotta Tosee in Chicago, where she lives.

Her talents began and ended with her appearance, but the studios would pay me big money to keep her safe. I had watched over her for three months, and she came out of it alive (just a few broken bones from the accident we got in while I was driving after having a few toots of rye — hey, nobody’s perfect).

Now the studios were stiffing me almost $75,000 because of the accident.

When I went back and looked at the contract, I saw a section titled “Forum Selection.” It said that I agreed to the jurisdiction of the courts of New York, and that all disputes would be in New York City applying New York law. 

I had seen that when I first read the contract, but figured since the contract was for $125,000 I wouldn’t sweat the small stuff, like if I would have to sue the studios. I hadn’t even shown Jim the contract before I signed it. 

When I told him about all of this, he threatened to fire me as a client. “Phillip, you idiot, I routinely get those clauses changed to California. You should have talked me. But now it’s too late — you’re going to have to travel to New York, pay to have Lotta fly back there and pay all of her expenses just to have her testify. It’s going to cost you more to litigate this than what the studios owe you.”

Now, I know. I ain’t never going to blindly sign a contract without checking with Jim.
(While the facts in this are false, the law is good. See, I’m not a private eye — I’m a business and real estate attorney here in Santa Clarita.)

Carl Kanowsky of Kanowsky & Associates is an attorney in the Santa Clarita Valley. He may be reached by e-mail at   Kanowsky’s column represents his own views, and not necessarily those of The Signal. It’s The Law@ appears Fridays and rotates between members of the Santa Clarita Valley Bar Association.  Nothing contained herein shall be or is intended to be construed as providing legal advice.


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