The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit has revived a lawsuit against a cruise ship whose medical staff is accused of an egregious lapse of care for a patron who fell dockside and suffered a head injury. The man waited hours after the fall to see the ship’s physician and several hours beyond that to be taken ashore to receive care. He died several days after being flown back to his home state of New York for care.

cruiseshipdockedAt issue in the subsequent wrongful death lawsuit,Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, was the so-called “Barbetta Rule,” set by the 1988 decision in Barbetta v. S/S Bermuda Star. This rule effectively immunized shipowners from the legal responsibility of medical employees established under the doctrine of respondeat superior liability.

The Barbetta rule conferred broad immunity to the shipowner, regardless of the control held by the shipowner over the medical staff or how serious the alleged acts of negligence. Although the trial court found that neither the theory of actual or apparent agency (establishing fiduciary duty to plaintiff) was applicable, appellate panel reversed and found both assertions were available to plaintiff in this case. Further, the court struck the Barbetta rule as obsolete in today’s modern cruise line industry, with its advanced technologies and extensive control over employee actions.

Our Tampa tourist injury lawyers recognize this ruling is significant for several reasons. It means large cruise lines will become more invested in the quality of medical care offered aboard to patrons. It also means they can be held accountable when they fail in this regard.

That is significant because, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no official agency that regulates medical practice aboard cruise ships. Generally, the medical clinics found on the ship are comparable to ambulatory care centers. There are guidelines cruise lines are encouraged to adopt, but there is no law requiring it.

The current guidelines indicate the following suggested standard of care on a cruise ship should include:

  • Providing emergency medical care for passengers and crew.
  • Stabilizing patients and initiating reasonable diagnostic and therapeutic interventions.
  • Facilitating evacuation of seriously ill patients.

Approximately 3 percent to 11 percent of all conditions reported on cruise ships are urgent or emergencies.

Even by these minimal standards, it appears defendant in the current case failed.

According to court records, decedent and his family were traveling on a cruise line in the Caribbean when the ship docked in Bermuda early in the morning. Decedent fell while boarding a trolley either at or near the dock. The fall resulted in a severe blow to the head.

Although he could easily have been referred ashore for treatment, his family said ship personnel required him to seek treatment aboard. A nurse checked him and determined his injuries were minor, although she ran no diagnostic scans or other testing. She sent him back to his room with an over-the-counter painkiller, and advised his wife of possible concussion signs.

His family called for assistance when his condition declined. It was four hours from the time of the fall before he finally saw a ship physician. Even then, the doctor would not see him until the family’s credit card information had been verified.

The doctor subsequently referred the patient to a hospital on shore for care. It was another 2.5 hours before he was actually taken ashore. According to his family, his life at that point was beyond saving.

The following day, he was airlifted to New York, where he died in the intensive care unit one week later.

In reviewing plaintiff’s claim for cause of action, appellate court found the complaint plausibly established just cause against the cruise line under both the doctrines of actual and apparent agency. Further, the court found the rise of a complex cruise industry, coupled with the progression of modern technology, effectively erased whatever utility the Barbetta rule may have once held.

If you are injured in Florida, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises,Nov. 10, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

More Blog Entries:

Court: Spouse of Child Abuser Had No Duty to Warn Neighbors, Nov. 18, 2014, Tampa Wrongful Death Lawyer Blog