US Court says four cruise Lines must pay claimant US$450mn for ‘trafficking’

2nd January 2023

Four cruise lines that operate out of the US have been told that they must pay close to US$450mn in total to the heirs of the original owners of the Havana Cruise Terminal. The port was expropriated in the 1960s by the Cuban government.

The ruling in the Miami Southern District by US District Court Judge, Beth Bloom, follows from an earlier March 2022 ruling that the use of the Havana Cruise Port Terminal constituted trafficking under Title III of the US Helms Burton legislation.

The allegedly trafficked (utilised) property was once owned by the Delaware-registered Havana Docks Corp. The ruling in favour of relatives of its owners also requires the cruise lines to pay the legal fees and costs which are expected to amount to around US$3mn per company.

Although the cruise lines – Norwegian Cruise Holdings, Carnival Corp, Royal Caribbean Group, and MSC Cruises – may appeal, the landmark case is expected to set a precedent as it was the first to be allowed to proceed to trial under Title III of the Helms Burton legislation.

In 2019, the Trump administration allowed US citizens to sue third parties for ‘trafficking’ property in Cuba expropriated after the Cuban revolution. The provision had previously been waived by every US President.

In her March 2022 ruling, Judge Bloom said that the companies must pay the descendants of a US businessman for using the Havana cruise terminal. The case was brought by Havana Docks, whose President, Mickael Behn, is the grandson of a businessman, William Behn, who had three docks confiscated in 1960. The company holds a US-certified claim to the terminal and piers.

In their defence, the four cruise lines had said they had used the terminal for lawful travel, that there was no evidence they acted with intent of trafficking, that Havana Docks never owned the cruise terminal but held a concession to operate a cargo business, and the UK based principal of the plaintiff was not an eligible claimant.

However, Judge Bloom rejected the companies’ arguments in a 169-page ruling, noting that the defendants continued using the terminal after gaining actual knowledge of Havana Docks’ certified claim. This was, she said, “enough to establish liability under the Libertad Act.” She also found that Havana Docks, with its office and management in Kentucky, qualified under US law and had demonstrated it owns a claim to confiscated property.

Bloom noted also that because US officials including the then US President had suggested cruise lines encourage US citizens to visit Cuba, it did not automatically immunise them from liability if they engaged in statutorily prohibited tourism.

Earlier cases have been dismissed because the plaintiffs had inherited their claims after a cut-off date or because they were unable to establish jurisdiction. The US Justice Department’s Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has previously certified nearly 6,000 claims on property confiscated by Cuba with a principal value of US$1.9bn.

Photo by Peter Hansen

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