Medical Malpractice on the High Seas: Do Cruise Passengers Have Any Rights?

CBC News in Canada published a story this week about cruise passenger Bernie Hamilton, age 66, who died following a Holland America Line ("HAL") cruise due to what sounds like a series of errors by the ship's medical personnel.  The article is entitled "Cruise Death Prompts Warning on Ships' Medical Care."  

I have heard these stories time after time over the years.   A couple excited about a dream vacation.  The husband experiences medical issues during the cruise which a competent doctor ashore would easily handle.  But due to blunders by the cruise ship medical team, the wife returns home alone to face the cruise line's denials of responsibility for the suffering and death.

In Bernie Hamilton's case, you can read about the ship doctor's misdiagnosis by concluding that Mr. Hamilton had just a common cold or perhaps asthma which led to a prescription of Ventolin which accelerates a patient's heart rate.  You can read that after Mr. Hamilton collapsed on Holland America Line - Cruise Ship Medical Carethe floor of the cabin, his wife Heather had to witness the spectacle of the medical personnel trying to decipher the instructions for the automatic defibrillator as precious minutes ticked away on her husband's life.  

After the ship medical team struggled to insert an intravenous line and intubation tube and finally "stabilized" Mr. Hamilton, the ship put Mr. Hamilton ashore in Spain where the shore-side doctors declared him brain dead.

Ms. Hamilton received no apologies from HAL.  The cruise line is quoted in the article saying that they "believe the care provided to Mr. Hamilton was appropriate."  All that Ms. Hamilton received from HAL was a bill for $2,000.

The article mentions other similar stories by members of the non-profit International Cruise Victims organization.   Also quoted is Miami lawyer, and my friend, Phil Gerson who is quoted saying: "They advertise that they do have a medical clinic on board . . . and they actually sell those services to their passengers.  But they don't tell them … that they have no legal responsibility for the carelessness of the medical personnel."

Last year, I wrote an article "If the Ship Doctor Kills You, Too Bad" which explains the dangers provided by the limited nature of cruise ship medical care and the difficulty seeking compensation when malpractice of the ship doctor or nurses harms your family. 

Yes, doctors and nurses make mistakes, but a cruise ship is about the only place where a doctor can negligently kill your loved one and there is no accountability. 

As I mentioned last year, as long as cruise lines are not liable for bad medical care, there is no financial incentive for the ships to invest in training and hiring more qualified and experienced doctors and nurses.

There is no economic or moral justification for such an inequitable situation. The cruise industry collects over $35 billion dollars a year and pays no Federal income taxes by registering their cruise ships in foreign countries.  As long as travel agents, cruise fans and the public are indifferent to these type of stories, in the future other families will experience the horror of dream vacations going terribly wrong.

 

Photo credit:   CBC News / Heather Hamilton

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Comments (2) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Scott Lara - December 4, 2011 9:11 PM

I can tell you from first hand experience that I was on a cruise and that someone I knew (over the age of 80) had a heart attack. The doctor performed admirably and the passenger (along with her husband) flew by medical jet from Puerto Rico back to the U.S.

The passenger is doing great after surgery here in Jacksonville, Florida

For every horror story, there are success stories.

They just aren't reported on.

Scott Lara
Jacksonville, Florida

Jim Walker - December 4, 2011 11:22 PM

Scott:

I am glad for you that the cruise ship doctor in your case didn't commit malpractice.

The point you are missing is that when cruise ship doctors and nurses are negligent, there is absolutely no accountability. Yes, not all ship doctors kill their patients but when they do there is no justice.

I am disappointed that you show no compassion for this victim of cruise ship malpractice or his wife. This is the attitude of many cruise fans and travel agents.

You should also disclose that you are a health care lobbyist and promote theme cruises.

Jim Walker

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