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Panama Canal Dispute Reflects Miami's New Role As International Arbitration Hub

Panama_Canal_Expansion.jpg
Panama Canal Authority
Wider Panama Canal locks under construction in 2014.

The new, wider Panama Canal opened this month – and this week the disputes over its big cost overruns start getting settled in Miami, a fact that reflects South Florida’s growing international legal stature.

The expanded canal opened two years later than originally planned. A big reason was the legal fight over who should pay for the billions of dollars the project went over budget. The Panama Canal Authority? The European construction consortium? Or both?

That sort of international dispute used to get heard in arbitration capitals like London or New York. But the first round started Monday at a hearing room in the Magic City – marking a milestone for its new global role.

“The canal expansion was obviously of great importance to the world," says Sandra Friedrich, who heads the international arbitration law program at the University of Miami. "So that’s definitely a signal that Miami is establishing itself more and more as one of the hubs of international arbitration.”

Friedrich notes Latin America has more business dealings today with North America, Europe and Asia. And that’s made Miami a natural site for dispute resolutions.

“You have a multilingual professional workforce," she says. "But then also the legal framework in Florida is quite favorable.”

Florida, for example, has adopted the U.N.'s "model law" on international commercial arbitration as state law; and the Florida Bar now lets lawyers from anywhere in the world practice international arbitration here. As a result, the International Centre for Dispute Resolution opened an office in Miami last year, and so have top global arbitration law firms like Jones Day.

The Panama Canal case being heard in Miami this week involves an argument over almost a quarter billion dollars in cost overruns for a cofferdam.