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Medical Malpractice May No Longer Fly on Cruise Ships

Suffering the consequences of medical malpractice is bad enough when you are near home. Whether you are the victim of a missed diagnosis, a health care provider error, or a misread scan the effects of malpractice can be devastating. Now imagine for a moment that you go through that experience, but instead of going through it near home it happens to you on a cruise ship. You are thousands of miles from home with a very limited number of medical professionals available to you. And on top of that, your ability to recover for the malpractice after the fact is limited. It would be horrific. Fortunately, one court has finally taken a step toward fixing the problems with recovering in court after this sort ‘of injury.

Franza Argues Cruise Line’s Negligence Killed Her Father

The Los Angeles Times reported on the case, noting that the court’s ruling “may eliminate the cruise industry’s broad immunity from medical negligence lawsuits.” The case is called Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises. Patricia Franza sued Royal Caribbean over the treatment her father, Pasquale Vaglio, received from the ship’s medical staff. Mr. Vaglio hit his head while the ship Explorer of the Seas was in port in Bermuda back in 2011. The ship’s nurse saw him after the accident, but provided him with minimal treatment. The onboard doctor did not see him for four hours, and he was not airlifted to a New York hospital until the next day. He died a week later as a result of his injuries. Ms. Franza filed suit, alleging that the cruise line’s negligence caused her father’s death.

Court Reinstates Suit and Calls Cruise Line Immunity Outdated

Royal Caribbean tried asked the trial court to dismiss the lawsuit. It cited a court ruling from back in 1988 in Barbetta v. SS Bermuda Star that gave cruise lines immunity for their employees’ negligent care. In the trial court, Royal Caribbean was successful, but Ms. Franza appealed that decision. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals then reinstated her lawsuit after finding that the decision in Barbetta is outdated considering the technology now available on cruise ships and the growth of the cruise line industry.

Historically under maritime law shipowners did not have a duty to even carry a physician on board so they were only liable for medical negligence if they breached their general duty to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances. However, cruise lines like Royal Caribbean now have doctors and other medical staff on board. It is Franza’s position that if the cruise line is going to have a doctor on staff then it is responsible for that doctor’s negligence the same way any other employer would be. After all, maritime law has long held ship owners responsible for the negligence of their other employees. The Court embraced this logic.

Not a Nationwide Decision

It is worth noting that this decision comes from a different circuit than the original Barbetta case. What this means is that in some parts of the country these suits will be allowed to proceed while in other parts of the country they will be barred. Ultimately, unless circuits allowing immunity for cruise lines overturn their prior decisions, it will require action from the United States Supreme Court to resolve the split amongst the circuits. Since the United States Supreme Court is not required to take such a case, there is no way of knowing when or whether it will do so.

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