Cruise Ships No Longer Exempted From Medical Malpractice Suits

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A decision by the Atlanta-based federal appeals court will overturn years of exemptions for medical care onboard cruise ships.

The “Barbetta ruling” of 1988 codified that cruise ships could not be sued for medical malpractice. The courts had said, “passengers should not expect the same level of medical care on a ship as on land” and the medical professionals onboard cruise ships were private contractors that did not fall under the cruise line’s direct control.

The ruling from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals discards the rule and said that changes in the cruise ship industry and advances in communication have changed the terms of exemption that cruise lines have operated under. Cruise lines should no longer be protected from allegations of negligence by ship’s medical personnel.

“We can discern no sound reason in law to carve out a special exemption for all acts of onboard medical negligence,” wrote Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus in the decision. “Much has changed in the quarter-century since Barbetta.”

The ruling is of great import to the cruise ship industry. Most American cruise lines are based in Miami, Florida, falling under the Eleventh Circuit Court’s jurisdiction which has often ruled on medical negligence compensation.

The suit was brought by Patricia Franza who sued Royal Caribbean Cruises after her father suffered an accident and died on a cruise in 2011. According to the lawsuit, Pasquale Vaglio fell and struck his head while on the cruise. He was examined by a nurse in the ship’s infirmary. The nurse did not recommend or conduct a diagnostic scan of Mr. Vaglio.

Mr. Vaglio’s condition worsened after he returned to his cabin. Four hours after notifying the medical personnel about his deteriorating condition, Vaglio was examined by the ship’s doctor and airlifted off of the ship to a hospital in Bermuda.

According to the decision, the delay in treatment meant that “Vaglio’s life was beyond saving.” He was airlifted to a hospital in Mineola, New York and died a week later.

“What we didn’t realize until this happened was that they have zero liability,” said Joseph Vaglio, son of Pasquale Vaglio and a pharmacist who lives in New York. “There is no way they should be getting away with this. They are making money hand over fist. Part of their cost of doing business should be to have a competent medical staff.”