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Cruise Ship Medical Malpractice Now a Cause of Action

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In a groundbreaking new holding out of the Eleventh Circuit (which covers coastal jurisdictions including Florida, Georgia and Alabama), doctors and nurses aboard cruise ships are no longer immune from liability for medical malpractice in the event a traveler seeks treatment on the ship.

The holding stems from a case known as Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., and hinges on the legal concepts of respondeat superior (i.e., vicarious liability) and apparent agency – both of which impart legal responsibility upon an employer for the misdeeds of his employees. Following this decision in Franza, passengers on board a ship may be able to seek compensation from the cruise company for negligent medical care rendered by the staff of the medical center, thereby overturning the traditional immunity enjoyed by cruise ship doctors and nurses.

Cruise ship medical malpractice

According to the facts as found in the Complaint, the Franza case involved an elderly passenger who fell and hit his head on the ship while it was docked in Bermuda. The passenger was taken to the onboard medical center, but reportedly received very little care or treatment and was released without any diagnostic imaging or scans on the cranial area. Moreover, the Petitioner asserts that the staff would not begin treating the man until credit card information could be verified, and even then it took four hours for the physician to appear. The man was released without any treatment, and died one week later.

The victim’s estate filed a wrongful death action naming Royal Caribbean responsible for the death of passenger under a theory of vicarious liability. This theory allows for personal injury victims to sue an employer for the negligence of the employee, and has been prohibited within the context of cruise ship medical care since the precedential decision in Barbetta v. S/S Bermuda Star, which spawned the ‘Barbetta Rule.’ However, as the Eleventh Circuit pointed out, much has changed in the cruise ship industry since Barbetta, including the development of state-of-the-art medical facilities in place of historically barebones nursing stations on ships of yore. In the words of the Court, “the evolution of legal norms, the rise of a complex cruise industry, and the progression of modern technology have erased whatever utility the Barbetta rule once may have had.”

Establishing medical malpractice at sea

Medical malpractice is a sub-sect of negligence law, and is used to hold medical professionals responsible for the aggravated injuries or deaths of their patients. While it is understood that a doctor cannot always save a patient – and a disease or injury can often take an unexpected course – doctors and nurses that render negligent or sub-par care may be held financial responsible in the event that lacking care causes the patient to suffer greater harm than he would have otherwise.

In the context of the cruise ship industry, medical malpractice may arise (in the Eleventh Circuit at least) where a doctor or nurse has failed to render reasonable care to a patient seeking assistance, and that failure results in the patient’s exasperated harm or death. When determining what is “reasonable,” courts examine the universally accepted practices within the medical community, which is usually explained by a medical expert. If the facts of the case reveal a gross departure from accepted medical practices – as is the case in Franza – the defendant will face liability for the harm caused to the victim.