Court ruling opens the door to malpractice claims against cruise ships

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Cruise ship at port

I’ve always thought cruise ships operate without much accountability.  I was happy to see this ruling come down from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

For more than 100 years, people  couldn’t win medical malpractice lawsuits against cruise lines because of exemptions created through a series of court decisions. The most recent is a 1988 ruling known as “Barbetta” that cruise companies such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival regularly relied upon to get malpractice lawsuits thrown out before trial. Courts said passengers should not expect the same level of medical care on a ship as on land, and ships’ doctors and nurses were private contractors beyond the cruise lines’ direct control.  Now, a federal appeals court  has ruled the exemption should no longer apply. A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which has jurisdiction over the major Florida-based cruise lines — recently decided Barbetta is outdated law.

In 2011, Joe Vaglio’s family went on a family reunion trip to Bermuda on the Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas.  His dad, Pasquale, a retired New York City cop, was just getting off the boat and he fell backwards, and hit the concrete on the pier with his head,” said Joe Vaglio. He was immediately taken to the ship’s medical unit, where a nurse did a cursory examination and said Vaglio should rest in his cabin. What she didn’t know — and a doctor wouldn’t discover until hours later — was that Vaglio had suffered a brain injury that would kill him within days.  The family claimed ship personnel committed medical malpractice by delaying treatment. But a Miami judge threw the case out without a trial, relying on more than a century of legal precedent.

The judges noted that the Royal Caribbean doctor and nurse wore cruise line uniforms, were presented as ship employees and that the onboard medical center was described glowingly in promotional materials. Some modern cruise ships, they noted, have sophisticated intensive care units, laboratories and the ability to do live video conference links with medical experts on shore.

“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 wrote in the decision. “Much has changed in the quarter-century since Barbetta.”

The cruise line is already appealing. In court papers, the company said “while cruise ships may have improved their medical facilities in the last 100 years, they should not be punished for it.””This isn’t over. Obviously, it’s a round that clearly has gone to those who are interested in representing passengers,” said Mark Houck, an adjunct professor at the University of Miami law school. The Vaglios say the ruling is common sense”If you’re going to like carry 4,000 people on a ship, you have to have responsibility.”

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