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Medical Malpractice Claims and Cruise Ships

Recently, in Franza, as a Personal Representative of the Estate of Vaglio v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, LTD, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal departed from previous caselaw and, held that ship passengers who become victims of medical malpractice could hold cruise lines vicariously liable for the negligence of the shipboard doctors and nurses.

Previously, victims and survivors of medical malpractice aboard cruise lines were unable to maintain medical malpractices lawsuits against cruise lines because cruise lines were able to assert a judicially created immunity defense. This defense, known as the "Barbetta Rule" immunizes a shipowner from liability whenever a cruise ship employee renders negligent medical care to its passengers. Barbetta v. S/S Bermuda Star, 848 F.2d 1364 (5th Cir. 1988). The so-called "Barbetta Rule." Cruise lines enjoyed broad immunity "no matter how clear the shipowner's control over its medical staff or how egregious the claimed acts of negligence."

In the recent Eleventh Circuit Case, Pasquale Vaglio, an elderly cruise ship passenger fell and bashed his head on a sightseeing trip in Bermuda. Mr. Vaglio was taken back to the ship and sought treatment from the onboard medical staff in the ship's designated medical center. The ship's medical staff however failed to properly asses Mr. Vaglio's cranial trauma and Mr. Vaglio died about a week later. Mr. Vaglio's daughter filed suit against the cruise line, seeking to hold the cruise line vicariously liable for the purported negligence of the ship's doctor and nurse. After the trial court dismissed Ms. Vaglio's lawsuit under the "Barbetta rule," she appealed the dismissal of her case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal.

The Eleventh Circuit rejected the "Barbetta Rule" because the rule came about in a time when ships had limited medical facilities. Instead now there are "state-of-the-art cruise ships that house thousands of people and operate as floating cities, complete with wellstocked modern infirmaries and urgent care centers." In addition, courts for over a century have found maritime employers liable for the negligence of their ship employees.

The Court noted that the complaint asserted that the cruise line paid the ships nurse and doctor, the medical center was created, owned and operated by the cruise line, the cruise line's marketing materials describe and market its medical center, and they were presented as the ship's employees and wore uniforms bearing the cruise lines name and logo. Based upon the facts the Court held that the complaint could plausibly demonstrate that the cruise line exercised control over the ship's medical personnel.

The cruise line's request for reconsideration was denied.

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