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Florida Court Makes Cruise Line Liable for Medical Malpractice

Earlier last month, the Eleventh Circuit Court overturned the longstanding rule that a cruise line company could not be sued for medical malpractice. This ruling is a complete change from the established law since 1988, when both state and federal courts ruled that injured parties could not sue the cruise lines for any medical negligence on the part of the ship’s nurses or doctors. This ruling has potentially massive implications for the cruise line companies, the passengers, and the Florida court system.

Florida Cruise Line Statistics

According to the Cruise Line International Association, more people have sailed on cruises in Florida and around the world than ever before. Last year, the number of passengers taking cruises on North American lines increased by four percent to a total of 17,600,000 people. Of those, 6,150,000 passengers sailed from a port in Florida, which is a 1.3% increase from the year prior. Miami alone had more than two million people aboard ships from their docks, and Fort Lauderdale saw another 1.8 million passengers.

Facts of the Case

This ruling stems from the case Franza v. Royal Caribbean, Ltd. On July 23, 2011, Pasquale Vaglio was a passenger aboard the “Explorer of the Seas,” a cruise ship owned and operated by Royal Caribbean. He was traveling with his wife and their children. After the ship docked at a port in Bermuda, Mr. Vaglio fell while boarding a trolley “at or near the dock” and suffered a severe blow to the head.

Although he could have easily been referred ashore for examination and treatment he was instead required to go to the ship’s medical center to be seen for his injuries. Mr. Vaglio was examined by Racquel Y. Garcia, a nurse employed full-time by Royal Caribbean who advised Mr. Vaglio and his wife that he was fine to return to his cabin. A couple of hours later, Mr. Vaglio’s son and daughter-in-law called 911, but it took approximately twenty minutes for staff to get him to the infirmary. Then, the onboard medical staff would not examine Mr. Vaglio until the ship’s personnel obtained credit card information.

Nearly four hours after his first visit to the ship’s infirmary, Mr. Vaglio was finally evaluated by the ship’s physician, Dr. Rogelio Gonzales. During his examination, Dr. Gonzales ordered that Mr. Vaglio be transferred to King Edward Memorial Hospital in Bermuda and arrived there more than six hours after he was first examined by Nurse Garcia. By that time, Mr. Vaglio’s life was beyond saving. The day after his deadly fall, he was airlifted to Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, New York and remained in intensive care until he died one week later.

The Court’s Ruling

U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lenard dismissed the case against Royal Caribbean by applying the 1988 Fifth Circuit ruling that the cruise line could not be vicariously liable for the nurse’s and doctor’s negligence on the theory that the medical professionals were agents of the cruise line. Known as the “Barbetta rule,” it was created during a time when ships had sparse, if any, medical facilities onboard the ship and often had no nurses or doctors on board.

The Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed the ruling. The court stated that changes in legal norms, the development of a complex cruise ship industry and advances in communications technology since 1988 mean cruise lines should not be immune from suit over allegations of negligence by ship doctors and nurses. Cruise lines themselves have asserted recently through CLIA’s “bill of passenger rights” that guests have a right to full-time professional emergency medical attention at sea.

“Here, the roots of the Barbetta rule snake back to a wholly different world. Instead of nineteenth century steamships, we now confront state-of-the-art cruise ships that house thousands of people and operate as floating cities complete with well-stocked modern infirmaries and urgent-care centers,” the opinion stated. “In place of independent doctors and nurses, we must now acknowledge that medical professionals routinely work for corporate masters. And whereas ships historically went ‘off the grid’ when they set sail, modern technology enables distant ships to communicate instantaneously with the mainland in meaningful ways.”

Effects on Cruise Line Industry

With cruise lines now liable for the actions of its medical personnel, many experts now believe that the number of lawsuits against cruise line companies will increase. Because most cruise lines hire medical professionals who are foreign nationals, seeking legal remedy against the individuals can be difficult. As a result, suing the cruise line directly can serve as the simplest way to get remedy for the medical malpractice injury.

Cruise passenger advocacy groups are also excited about the recent ruling of the court, saying that making the cruise line industry responsible for the medical negligence of cruise ship employees will create a safer experience for all passengers involved. “We see this as an historic change in the way cruise lines treat people who get sick on cruise ships.”

This ruling has particular impact on the court system within Florida because most lawsuits filed by customers against cruise lines fall within the Eleventh Circuit. Carnival, Celebrity, Disney, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Silversea Cruises all require in their “forum selection clauses” of their contracts that passengers must file any lawsuit in the Southern District of Florida as a matter of contract. It does not matter that the cruise departed from another state or country; any injured passenger must file their lawsuit in Florida.

Call a Florida Medical Malpractice Attorney Today

This recent court ruling means that cruise lines can now be held liable for the negligence of their on-board medical professionals and can no longer escape paying compensation to victims injured on their trips. If you or someone that you know has been injured on a cruise because of medical malpractice, let the experienced Florida attorneys at The Pendas Law Firm help. Call the office or contact us today for a free and confidential consultation of your case.

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