Passengers May Have Legal Claim for Medical Malpractice on Cruise Ships

No one sets sail on a vacation cruise expecting to sustain a serious injury or illness. But passengers who do require medical treatment expect that the care they receive will be delivered according to the recognized standard of care. When they are harmed by medical negligence, they may have available the legal right to hold those responsible accountable.

A recent ruling by a federal appeals panel expands the liability of cruise line companies when doctors provide negligent care to patients during cruises. It gives those who have been harmed more legal rights to seek compensation. In the case Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., No. 13-13067, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th U.S. Circuit held that cruise ship companies are not exempt from lawsuits for medical negligence. “We can discern no sound reason in law to carve out a special exemption for all acts of onboard medical negligence,” the court said in the opinion.

As outlined in the court decision, an elderly cruise ship passenger fell on the dock while trying to board a trolley and hit his head while the cruise ship Explorer of the Seas was in port in Bermuda. The injured passenger, a retired New York police officer and Korean War veteran, was rolled back onto the ship and taken to the ship’s onboard medical center for treatment. During the next few hours, the patient allegedly received such negligent medical care that he died a week later. The victim’s daughter filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Florida seeking to hold the cruise line vicariously liable for the alleged negligence of its employees, the ship’s doctor and nurse.

The district court in Florida initially dismissed the case relying on the rule set out in Barbetta v. S/S Bermuda Star that relieves ship owners of liability when a ship’s employees deliver negligent medical care to passengers. The rule extended broad immunity regardless of the ship owner’s control of the medical staff or how severe the claims of negligence. The exemptions had made it almost impossible for passengers of a cruise ship, or their families, to be able to win a lawsuit claiming medical negligence after a serious illness, injury or death on a cruise line.

The court of appeals panel found that the cruise industry has evolved and that the exemption was based upon outdated law and should therefore no longer apply.

Another point noted by the panel was the fact that since the doctor and nurse both "wore cruise line uniforms, were presented as ship employees and that the onboard medical center was described glowingly in promotional materials," there is no reason the cruise line should be exempt from legal liability as a result of onboard medical negligence.

Until the recent ruling from a federal appeals court, with jurisdiction over the main Florida-based cruise lines, courts have made it clear that passengers cannot reasonably expect the same level of medical treatment and care while on board a cruise ship.
This was apparently based upon the fact that cruise ships hired doctors, nurses and medical staff as private contractors, which put them out of the cruise lines' control.

Precedent the Federal Court Decision Could Set for Future Cruise Ship Medical Malpractice Claims

While this is an important victory for an individual family, the federal court's decision could also set a new precedent for future cruise ship medical malpractice claims. Cruise lines may no longer be able to hide behind exemptions that any medical malpractice lawsuits would be thrown out making it to trial. This ruling might allow other victims of medical malpractice on cruise ships to seek justice and pursue the fair and just compensation they so rightfully deserve.

The federal court's decision may lead more cruise lines to adopt the American College of Emergency Physicians' "Health Care Guidelines for Cruise Ship Medical Facilities." While cruise lines are not required to adhere to these guidelines, it could allow for an improved level of care and treatment aboard cruise ships and reduce the chances of medical negligence or a failure to apply the accepted standard of medical care and treatment while on board.

By Sansone & Lauber, Missouri
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Benjamin Sansone
Benjamin Sansone of Sansone & Lauber, a St. Louis law firm, handles medical malpractice and personal injury cases. Mr. Sansone can be reached at 314-863-0500. Sansone & Lauber, a St. Louis law firm, handles plaintiff’s injury cases involving auto accidents, medical malpractice, premises liability and wrongful death. We are dedicated to providing clients with personalized attention.

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Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws they may affect a case. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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