Our cruise ship attorneys remind cruise ship passengers that when you are on the high seas, you are completely at the mercy of the captain and the crew. You expect that cruise lines hire competent medical personnel to treat sick or injured passengers. Cruise lines have a lot to lose if they do not hire qualified physicians and other assistants. The last thing a cruise line wants is a reputation for not treating their passengers properly. Until recently, however, cruise lines were not necessarily liable for the medical malpractice committed by the ship’s physician and his staff. This development in the law, at least as it relates to the United States Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (of which Florida is a member), permits victims of medical malpractice on the high seas to sue the cruise line rather than just the physician.
The case that brought about the change was Franza v. Royal Caribbean. In that case, the plaintiff’s father was an elderly passenger on a Royal Caribbean ship. He fell and struck his head very hard while boarding a trolley shortly after the cruise liner docked at a port in Bermuda. A crew member from the ship wheeled the plaintiff’s father back on board the vessel and brought him to the sick bay for medical treatment. No doctor treated the plaintiff’s father at the sick bay. Instead, a nurse came by and examined the plaintiff’s father’s head. The nurse failed to order diagnostic testing despite reasoning that the man had a concussion. The nurse suggested that the man’s wife pay close attention to her husband’s condition and call back if his condition worsened.
He did get worse. The man’s family called 911 from their cabin, and it took 20 minutes to get a crew member to bring the plaintiff’s father back down to the ship’s infirmary. Once at the infirmary, the man did not receive immediate medical care. Alternatively, the medical assistant took the time to confirm credit card information. Finally, four hours after the fall, the plaintiff’s father saw the ship’s physician. By that point, the man was in dire condition. The doctor started an intravenous drug and ordered the plaintiff’s father to go by ambulance to the emergency room in town at Bermuda. The plaintiff’s father, nearly dead, was flown to a New York hospital where he died a week later.
The plaintiff, who is the representative of her father’s estate, sued Royal Caribbean for negligence. She did not sue the nurse or the doctor who committed malpractice. Rather, the plaintiff relied on the theory of respondeat superior to hold the ship line liable for their negligence because the physician and nurse were employees of Royal Caribbean. The theory of respondeat superior essentially means that an employer is liable for the negligence of its employee while acting within the scope of the business. The trial judge dismissed the case because, up to this point, cruise lines were not liable for the malpractice of their physicians and medical personnel.
The Eleventh Circuit revised that rule. The Court found that the law protecting a ship owner from medical malpractice comes from a time when steamships ruled and when ships sailed, they were gone. Now, as the Court said, cruise ships are floating cities. They have immediate contact with land, despite being out to sea. Furthermore, the law surrounding medical malpractice has changed and now imposes liability on the employer under the theory of respondeat superior. The Court saw no good reason to treat ship owners differently.
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