In a ruling this month by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal, the court overturned a long-held standard that granted cruise ships complete immunity when faced with medical malpractice. Physicians and health care providers on cruise ships will now be liable for medical malpractice, and patrons of cruise ships will be able to claim malpractice for negligent care.
The case: Patrica Franza (as a personal representative of the estate of Pasquale F. Vaglio v. Royal Carribean Cruises, Ltd. Pasquale Vaglio was injured when he fell and hit his head while the ship was docked in Bermuda. He was transported back onto the ship to receive medical attention in the ship’s facilities. He allegedly received the following negligent treatment:
- Failure by the ship’s nurse to asses cranial trauma or conduct diagnostic scans.
- Failure by the onboard doctor to meet with Vaglio for four hours.
- Failure by the medical staff to examine Vaglio until they had obtained his credit card information.
- Released with "no treatment to speak of."
Vaglio died within a week of sustaining his injuries. His daughter, Patricia Franza, filed a lawsuit claiming medical negligence under respondeat superior liability (actual agency) and apparent agency, but the Florida trial court dismissed the lawsuit under the Barbetta rule.
The Barbetta Rule
The Barbetta rule was established in Barbetta v. S./S Bermuda Star by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The rule "immunizes a shipowner from respondeat superior liability whenever a cruise ship employee renders negligent medical care to its passengers."
After the trial court struck down the lawsuit under Barbetta, Franza appealed to the circuit court of appeals. The appeals court found that the Barbetta rule was no longer relevant, and struck it down. The rule was established when cruise ships had few if any medical facilities or doctors or nurses. However, many cruise ships, including Royal Caribbean, now advertise state-of-the-art medical facilities as part of their marketing effort. According to the court, it was "disingenuous for large cruise lines to disclaim any medical expertise when they routinely provide access to medical care in the infirmaries they have constructed for this very purpose."
Cruise lines may now be held liable in the 11th Circuit Court for medical malpractice committed by onboard medical personnel under theories of actual agency and apparent agency.