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Groundbreaking New Ruling Allows MedMal Claims Against Cruise Ships

The Eleventh Circuit has recently overturned the long-standing precedent preventing passengers of cruise ships from suing the owners of cruise ships. Rejecting the Fifth Circuit's 1988, case of Barbetta v. S/S Bermuda Star, which ruled that shipowners can only be liable to seamen and not passengers for negligence on the part of the ship's doctor, the Eleventh Circuit decided legal norms have evolved.

“Whatever utility the Barbetta rule once may have had” has been erased, the court found, primarily due to the advances in modern technology and the general explosion of the cruise ship industry since 1988.

"We have repeatedly emphasized that vicarious liability raises fact-bound questions, and we can discern no sound reason in law to carve out a special exemption for all acts of onboard medical negligence," the Eleventh Circuit reasoned.

The reversal of such a long-standing precedent will undoubtedly open up cruise lines to an onslaught of 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 Eleventh Circuit's new ruling.

Wrongful death on cruise

Because of the new ability of passengers to bring medical malpractice claims against Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Franza's father, who died in 2011, after suffering a head injury on one of Royal Caribbean's cruise ships, will be able to have his day in court through his daughter.

Vaglio, while a passenger on the Royal Caribbean ship Explorer of the Seas, 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.

Carol Finkelhoff of Leesfield Scolaro PA, who has previously represented cruise lines and now currently works on the plaintiffs' side in the field of maritime law says:

"Before this, the only way to state a claim 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."

With this new ruling, plaintiffs will be able to sue cruise lines and make it past the pre-trial dismissal stage.

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.

And for what? Carnival Cruise Lines "gifted" the passengers with a full refund for the failed cruise, a voucher for travel and a subsequent cruise (because they probably could not wait to utilize their "sea legs" again), 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.

Leesfield Scolaro, of Miami, Florida, describes in great detail the general difficulty of cruise ship litigation on their website:

"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. 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 from over a hundred years of non-evolving case law and confusion regarding limitations on rights and remedies, 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

Philip Parrish, Franza's attorney in her case, explains, "The Barbetta decision decided the case should be dealt with at the pleading stage, and the Eleventh Circuit decided consistent with maritime law that the issue of agency is always a factual question." Not only will the decision have a direct effect on cruise ship litigation precedent, it will be binding on virtually all cruise ship litigation. This is the cruise lines' own doing, through the stipulations included in fine print on the back of passengers' tickets which state that any lawsuits deriving from the voyage must be brought in the Southern District of Florida.

The impact of the Eleventh Circuit decision does not necessarily end with the opening up of medical malpractice claims. Franza's attorney 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.

It is frankly unimaginable the possibilities for litigation and the evolvement of the common law likely to stem from this ground-breaking new maritime precedent. 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 at Slate.com.

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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