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Cruise lines finally liable for medical malpractice committed on cruise ships

For the longest times, cruise ship passengers were not allowed to bring cruise lines as defendants in medical malpractice claims to recover for the negligent acts of a doctor or a nurse when they were committed aboard a cruise ship. In almost every single scenario, passengers were left without anyone to sue. Injustice remained served for years, until today.

In its latest ruling, judges of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the previous law, Barbetta, was outdated, and allowed the family of a deceased cruise passenger to continue on with a lawsuit for medical malpractice against the cruise line, in this case, Royal Caribbean.

The Barbetta ruling was justified in the nature of the relationship between the passenger and the physician, and the carrier’s lack of control over that relationship. The Fifth Circuit Court ruled that “the work which a physician or a surgeon does . . . is under the control of the passengers themselves. It is their business, not the business of the carrier. . . . The master or owners of the ship cannot interfere in the treatment of the medical officer when he attends a passenger. He is not their servant engaged in their business, and subject to their control as to his mode of treatment.” [Secondly] “[a] ship’s physician is an independent medical expert engaged on the basis of his professional qualifications and carried on board a ship for the convenience of passengers, who are free to contract with him for any medical services they may require.”

Since 1988, date of the Barbetta ruling, significant developments in law, technology, and the medical industry itself have invalidated both of these critical foundations to the Barbetta rule, requiring a re-examination of the shipowner’s liability for the medical malpractice of a ship’s physicians and other medical staff. The re-examination was performed by the Court of Appeals which simply rejected the Barbetta rule and seemingly opened a new era and area of litigation against cruise lines for the foreseeable future.

In this recent turnaround, Vaglio v. Royal Caribbean, the judges noted several factors to justify the abandon of the Barbetta rule, including the fact that cruise lines’ doctors and nurses wear “cruise line uniforms”, are “presented as ship employees” and that the onboard medical center is always “described glowingly in promotional materials”. Some modern cruise ships, they noted, have sophisticated intensive care units, laboratories and the ability to do live video conference links with medical experts on shore.

Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus wrote the decision and declared: “We can discern no sound reason in law to carve out a special exemption for all acts of onboard medical negligence. Much has changed in the quarter-century since Barbetta.”

For years, cruise passengers received substandard care on cruise ships. The medical personnel was often comprised of foreigners, sometimes the doctors and nurses manning the ships’ infirmary could not even communicate with their patients in the English language.

More importantly, the medical care provided to sick and injured passengers knew no standard because of the Barbetta rule itself. By shielding cruise lines from their doctors negligence, a high level of medical care was never made mandatory, let alone encouraged. This latest ruling finally gives an avenue of recovery to those passengers who were cared for in a substandard way. The biggest victory however is for all passengers who will soon be able to rely on a core of professional medical staff who will undoubtedly be hired across the fleet of major cruise line companies.

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