Finally, Cruise Ship Doctors can be Held Liable for their Malpractice

Medical Malpractice


A federal appeals court recently ruled that cruise ship passengers have the right to file malpractice claims against the medical staff of cruise ships, overturning a long-standing law. The decison arose in the case of delayed treatment of a man suffered a brain injury and died on Royal Caribbean ship in Bermuda. 

The ruling is significant in light of the notorious outbreaks of disease on cruise ships at sea. Before the ruling by the the Eleventh US Circuit Court of Appeals, shipowners could only be held responsible by seamen, but not passengers, for negligence on the part of the ship’s doctor.

The reversal of such a long-standing precedent opens cruise lines to personal injury litigation, such as the claim brought by Patricia Franza. It was Franza’s suit against Royal Caribbean, filed on behalf of her father, Pasquale Vaglio, that resulted in the new ruling.

Wrongful death on cruise

Vaglio, who suffered a head injury on one of Royal Caribbean’s cruise ships, will be able to have his day in court through his daughter.

He was a passenger on the Royal Caribbean ship Explorer of the Seas when he fell while boarding a trolley when the ship was docked in Bermuda on July 23, 2011. He was sent to the ship’s infirmary, where a nurse failed to assess the extent of his head injury and sent him to his cabin, according to the court opinion. When Vaglio’s condition deteriorated not long afterward, the onboard medical staff refused to examine him without first getting his credit card information.

According to the plaintiff, Vaglio finally saw the ship’s physician four hours after the accident. It was at this time the doctor sent him to a hospital in Bermuda, but this was too little too late, according to the opinion. Vaglio’s life could not be saved, and he was airlifted the next day to a hospital in Mineola, New York, where he died one week later.

Essentially, when passengers get sick on cruise ships, they have no alternative choice to using the ship’s doctor. The only other option available for cruise ship passengers is to take a chance with the doctors at ports who haven’t been vetted by the cruise line.

“Before this, the only way was to claim negligent hiring and retention or go after the doctor directly, and that’s basically impossible because you couldn’t get personal jurisdiction," said Carol Finkelhoff of Leesfield Scolaro PA, who represents plaintiffs in the field of maritime law says. 

Carnival Triumph disaster

Cruise ship disasters are a recurring commonality in recent years’ world news. It is estimated more than nine million passengers board pleasure cruises each year, and this sum belongs to those vessels departing from North American ports alone. The Carnival Triumph experienced an engine malfunction resulting in a fire that left the ship without electricity, air conditioning and the use of its sewage system for over a week.

Passengers on the Triumph were left with a shortage of food, without critical medicine and, most importantly, stranded in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico for over eight days. Without the use of showers and with the added health nightmare of a burst sewage pipe, passengers aboard the liner were instructed to use bags instead of the bathrooms within the their cabins. Additionally, fights broke out over food while passengers waited in never-ending lines to receive food for over four hours at a time.

Carnival Cruise Lines “gifted” the passengers with a full refund for the failed cruise, a voucher for travel and a subsequent cruise and an extra $500. Due to the general difficulty of obtaining personal jurisdiction in cruise ship litigation, the complex choice of law contract provisions, and the multiple disclaimers contained within the fine print, cruise line companies have had all the litigation power prior to the Eleventh Circuit’s decision.

“Cruise ships are not merely common carriers, they are virtual floating cities. These floating cities, however, lack fundamental safety policies, protocols, and procedures to protect passengers from harm," said attorney Leesfield Scolaro, of Miami, Florida. "In addition, antiquated laws and contractual language limiting rights and remedies, puts travelers in a precarious position. As one judge stated, the lesson to be learned is essentially the following: ‘Don’t have an accident, don’t get sick, and hope for an uneventful cruise vacation, otherwise you will discover that your rights and remedies as an aggrieved consumer are governed by antiquated legal principles which favor cruise lines to the detriment of cruise passengers.’”

Direct effect on cruise ship litigation

The impact of the Eleventh Circuit decision does not necessarily end with the opening up of medical malpractice claims. Philip Parrish, Franza’s attorney in her case, thinks, “It’s going to open the doors up where now passengers can more successfully bring claims against cruise lines for things that happen on shore excursions . . . Shore excursions are huge sources of claims against cruise lines.” Prior the Eleventh Circuit’s decision, the difficulty in pinpointing liability boiled down to the employment status of the ship’s doctors, excursion tour operators, and spa staff: independent contractors.

The hundreds of claimants who joined suit against the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, the parent company and named party of The Titanic litigation, received a total settlement of $644,000 to be divided among them. Using a standard inflation calculator, that value now sits at $15,719,270, roughly 16 million dollars. You can find information on Titanic litigation and an photocopy of an original survivor complaint here.

The case is Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., case number 13-13067, in the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

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