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Developments in Cruise Line Law Offers Hope for Passengers

Recent changes in the law may have a big impact on the cruise industry. A U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that cruise line companies will no longer be immune from suits when their hired doctors or other medical personnel give negligent care to cruise passengers.

The Case

The case that caused the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to change precedent involved an elderly couple on a cruise to Bermuda. While the ship was docked in port at Bermuda, the husband slipped and fell. Due to his injuries, he was taken back to the ship so the ship’s medical personnel could treat his injuries. But, it is alleged, he had to wait for hours to be seen by the ship’s doctor, and even after he was seen he later died. His wife sued the cruise line based on a theory that the cruise line was responsible for the death because of how their doctor treated her husband. A lower court dismissed the case based on old precedent that gives ship companies immunity from the negligence of their doctors. This is known as the Barbetta rule.

Prior Precedent

The Barbetta rule came from a case in the late 1980s. In that case, a couple was on a cruise to Mexico where the wife came under the care of the ship’s doctors. According to the couple in a lawsuit they filed, the doctor who treated her was negligent because he failed to diagnose her case of diabetes, and she suffered damages as a result. When the case got to the Court of Appeals, the court stated that ships are not responsible for the actions of their doctors. In any other situation, other than on a ship, the companies that employ doctors are generally liable for what mistakes their doctors make. The reason ships were given immunity was because historically ships contracted with their doctors to work on their ships, and they did not control how the doctors practiced medicine. It was thought, therefore, that because of the doctors’ independence, the ships should not be responsible for their doctors’ negligence. If they were, it was argued, the ships would not want to hire doctors and the passengers would suffer as a result.

New Law

Fast forward to today and the situation is very different. In making its decision to overturn the Barbetta rule the court looked at some very important factors as to why cruise lines should be liable for their doctors’ negligence:

  • Today every major cruise line has doctors or other medical personnel that go on cruises to look after passengers.
  • Those doctors are paid and controlled by the cruise lines.
  • The time when it is difficult to get medical personnel to work on ships is in the past.
  • If a doctor is negligent to a cruise employee, the ship will be held liable, a standard that could be applied to passengers as well.

These are some of the arguments the court put forward to justify its reversal of the Barbetta rule. It is not yet clear in this case whether the ship’s medical personnel were actually negligent in how they treated the man. But now the man’s survivors will have a chance to prove their case in court, and the ship will no longer enjoy this broad immunity.

At Alan Goldfarb, P.A. we know how to deal with cruise line injuries in Miami. We have the experience needed to give your case the respect it deserves. If you are dealing with an accident that took place during a cruise, contact us so we can help you.

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