The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit recently ruled that cruise
ship companies can be held liable for the medical malpractice of its on-board
health care providers. The 63 page decision, available
here, declines to adopt a decades old legal precedent that granted immunity
to cruise ship companies under U.S. maritime law.
The case was filed on behalf of an elderly passenger on a popular cruise
ship who fell and injured his head while the ship was docked in Bermuda.
Allegedly, the patient was wheeled to where the ship provides medical
care to its passengers where he waited for hours to be treated. It was
further alleged that the medical staff was so negligent that it caused
the patient’s death. The wrongful death suit filed on his behalf
was dismissed at trial, but that decision has been reversed.
The Barbetta Rule
The case was dismissed at the trial level based on what is known in maritime
law as the “Barbetta rule.” The Barbetta rule was extended
in a 1988
case where a passenger sued a cruise line when its doctor failed to diagnose
her diabetes, and then she suffered damages as a result. The appeals court
at that time held that the only duty cruise lines owed to passengers regarding
medical malpractice was to avoid being negligent in hiring a doctor. Meaning,
as long as the cruise line does not hire a quack, or a clearly incompetent
doctor, they could not be sued for any negligent care provided by doctors
to cruise line passengers.
This rule was created based on years and years of maritime law. The court
reasoned that if it allowed a cruise line to be held negligent for the
care its doctors gave, they would simply not hire doctors to be on cruises.
The court also claimed that it would not be fair to hold the cruise line
liable because the cruise line does not exercise control over how a doctor
treats a ship’s passengers. This decision was made at a time when
cruise lines were just getting started. Generally, the law was still a
product of hundreds of years of commercial shipping.
The New Rule
The wrongful death suit of the elderly passenger reversed this legal precedent.
His suit was based on two theories. First, that the members of the medical
staff on board the ship were actually agents for the cruise line, and
therefore the cruise line should be held liable for their negligence.
And second, even if the members of the medical staff were not actually
agents of the cruise line, they appeared as agents of the cruise line,
the cruise line endorsed that appearance, and therefore the cruise line
should be held liable for any negligence of the cruise staff. Without
deciding whether the medical staff was actually negligent in how they
cared for the passenger, the court agreed that a cruise line can be held
liable for how its medical staff provides care. In making this decision
the court chose not to endorse the Barbetta rule.
Aftermath of the New Rule
Owing to this court’s new ruling, being justly and fairly compensated
for injuries due to malpractice on board a cruise ship should be easier.
At The Pittman Firm we take all injuries very seriously. If you have been
injured aboard a cruise ship due to medical malpractice,
contact us so we can fight for you.
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