New Ruling Gives Cruise Line Passengers Right to Sue for Medical Malpractice

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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