January 28, 2015
If a passenger sustains an injury on a cruise ship, what is the
first thing they do? They generally visit the shipboard infirmary
and see the ship’s doctor or other member of the cruise line
medical staff, such as a physician assistant or nurse. After
their immediate medical needs have been met, the person will
report the accident to the appropriate ship’s officer and file an
Up until now, cruise lines generally enjoyed a considerable
degree of immunity from passenger lawsuits based upon the
negligence of the medical staff. This was strongly rooted in the
holding of Barbetta v. S/S Bermuda Star, 848 F. 2d 1364, 1988
American Maritime Cases 2650, which protected cruise lines
from vicarious liability from medical malpractice committed by
their staff. In general, a medical malpractice cause of action
arises when there is a legal duty to conform to a given
standard of care, and there is a breach of that duty, resulting
in damages, or injuries to be more accurate. If the breach of
duty is the proximate cause of injuries or disability, we have
the basis for a med mal case. With the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in
Barbetta, cruise lines enjoyed broad legal immunity from the
conduct of their medical personnel. Under the legal doctrine of
respondeat superior, an employer is generally liable for the
acts of their employees. But that wasn’t really the case under
The decision in Barbetta v. S/S Bermuda Star has been
criticized by cruise ship injury attorneys as not being in touch
with the developments of the industry, largely due to the
evolution of medical technology and diagnostic capabilities.
During the reign of this legal doctrine, shipboard infirmaries
did not have the capabilities they do today. However, lawyers
for cruise ship passengers say that has changed in recent
decades. Cruise ships carry state-of-the art equipment which
in some cases rivals the resources of small hospitals.
In the case, Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, Case No.
13-13067 D.C. Docket 1:13 20090-JAL, (See the decision of the
11th Circuit Court of Appeals), a federal appeals court in the
11th Circuit redefined the standards by which a cruise line can
be held liable for the actions of its medical staff. A passenger
on the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (RCCL) ship Explorer of the
Seas was injured during a shore excursion while the vessel
was docked in Bermuda. The man fell and hit his head. He was
taken back to Explorer of the Seas where he was seen by the
ship’s medical staff. Back on board the ship, the staff did not
adequately assess the cranial trauma. Tests that could have
determined the severity of the situation were not conducted.
Tragically, the passenger died about a week later.
The daughter of the passenger filed a lawsuit against Royal
Caribbean Cruise Line in District Court in the Eleventh Circuit.
The cause of action employed legal theories of actual authority
and apparent authority. The district court dismissed the
action. However, when the law firm representing her appealed,
the circuit court reversed and remanded the case back to the
district court, finding that plaintiff did successfully argue the
elements of actual authority and apparent authority.
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