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Federal Appeals Court Rules Passengers Can Sue Cruise Ships for Medical Negligence

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.

In 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 Barbetta.”

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.