A recent decision by a federal appeals court in Florida makes it easier
for passengers to pursue medical negligence lawsuits against cruise ships.
Under prior precedent, medical malpractice victims could only pursue claims
against the individual doctor.
Pasquale Vaglio, a former New York City police officer, was traveling aboard
Royal Caribbean’s “Explorer of the Seas” when he fell
and hit his head. Vaglio sought treatment from the ship’s medical
center and, after a cursory examination, was told to rest in his cabin.
Tragically, the medical staff failed to recognize that Vaglio had suffered
a head injury, and he died several days later.
Vaglio’s family subsequently
filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against Royal Caribbean. The cruise line sought to dismiss the case in
reliance on a 1988 ruling known as the “Barbetta Doctrine,”
which held that cruise ship companies were largely immune from liability
for medical malpractice.
Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals abolished the Barbetta Doctrine
after concluding that the rationale behind the prior ruling no longer
applied. In reaching its decision, the court consulted maritime law principles
as well as medical negligence, personal injury, and agency law.
“We can discern no sound reason in law to carve out a special exemption
for all acts of onboard medical negligence,” Circuit Judge Stanley
Marcus explained. “Much has changed in the quarter-century since
The court specifically noted that many cruise ships now operate sophisticated
healthcare facilities, which they frequently tout in their promotional
materials. Accordingly, the panel rejected the former notion that cruise
line passengers cannot expect to receive the same medical care at sea
as on land. The Eleventh Circuit also noted that the medical staff did
not consist of independent contractors, but were considered employees
of the cruise line.
Royal Caribbean has petitioned the court for a rehearing. Should the ruling
stand, the Eleventh Circuit’s new precedent will govern future medical
malpractice suits brought against all the major cruise ship lines that
are based in Florida. We will keep you posted.