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Judge Denies John Travolta's Unusual Arguments for Arbitration in Cruise-Ship Case

The ruling means the suit -- in which a ship attendant claims Travolta exposed himself and "forcefully embraced" the staffer following a neck message -- won't be litigated in secret.

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John Travolta

A judge has ruled that John Travolta's ticket aboard the Royal Caribbean cruise ship in June 2009 wasn't a ticket to arbitration.

Fabian Zanzi, a ship attendant, filed a lawsuit against Travolta for assault and battery and infliction of emotional distress in June. The plaintiff says that upon request, he gave Travolta a neck massage on the cruise ship. Travolta allegedly disrobed, exposed himself and then "forcefully embraced" him.

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Travolta has denied the allegations, and his attorney has threatened to sue the plaintiff for malicious prosecution. But one of the first legal moves in this case was an attempt by Travolta to compel arbitration by pointing to the fine print of his ticket.

On Friday, a California federal judge rejected Travolta's arguments in a 31-page ruling.

Anytime anybody buys a ticket -- whether it's for a concert, a ballgame or a cruise ship -- the purchaser agrees to certain things that are usually printed on the ticket. These stipulations are typically written by lawyers for the protection of the seller.

In this instance, Travolta flipped the usual script, attempting to gain advantage from the "Cruise Tour Ticket Contract" by having it deemed to be an agreement to send any dispute between a passenger and a cruise employee into arbitration.

The advantages of arbitration are speed, more control over proceedings and, of course, secrecy.

Unfortunately for Travolta, the judge isn't buying the arbitration arguments made by Travolta's attorney Marty Singer.

"This argument misses the mark," Judge Stephen Wilson writes in his ruling. "The pertinent inquiry is not whether Plaintiff's dispute falls within the Cruise Contract's arbitration provision (it might), but rather whether Plaintiff may be compelled to arbitrate despite being a non-signatory."

In other words, the contract was between Caribbean and Travolta, and the judge adds there is no evidence that Caribbean was authorized to bind Zanzi to the Cruise Tour Ticket Contract.

Read the ruling

Travolta's attorney attempted other arguments to get this into arbitration. One was that Caribbean was acting on Zanzi's behalf in making the contract under an "agency theory." Another was that Zanzi was a "third party beneficiary" of the contract. Neither argument was successful with the judge.

Finally, Travolta also argued that Zanzi was equitably estopped from refusing to arbitrate because the plaintiff's claims are factually interwoven with Zanzi's separate dispute with Royal Caribbean.

As Zanzi pursues Travolta in open court over an alleged neck massage gone bad, the plaintiff is also in the midst of arbitration against Royal Caribbean, claiming that he was falsely imprisoned by his employer. After Zanzi says he reported the Travolta incident to his superiors in June 2009, Zanzi claims he was ordered to stay in a "segregated room" for five days until Travolta left the ship.

Here, Travolta's attorneys looked to take advantage of Zanzi's employment agreement, which also covered arbitration. Except in this case, Travolta was the non-signatory.

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The problem is that the judge doesn't perceive enough connection. One dispute deals with alleged assault and battery. The other dispute involves an unlawful confinement. Further, the judge says, "There is no evidence that Defendant's assault and Royal Caribbean's subsequent response were interdependent or concerted."

Judge Wilson examines the possibility that a relationship might be forged from Zanzi's allegations that the cruise ship put him in harm's way despite its knowledge of Travolta's "propensities" or the fact that Travolta was provided with large amounts of alcohol.

Ultimately, the judge says it's not enough to ship this dispute into arbitration.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner