The Florida Third District Court of Appeal published a ruling today which is, in a word, shameful.
The case involved allegations by a passenger who sailed on a cruise that she suffered sepsis, multiple organ failure, and a cerebral hemorrhage due to medical malpractice and misrepresentations by a doctor on a Royal Caribbean ship.
According to the allegations in the lawsuit filed in Miami, Ms. Gutierrez and her husband sailed on Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas cruise ship in May 2010 from Port Everglades, Florida for a week long cruise through the Western Caribbean. Ms. Gutierrez experienced intense abdominal pain as the cruise ship approached Labadee, Haiti. She was taken by wheelchair to the ship's medical facility. The ship doctor, Dr. Chris Taylor, diagnosed and treated her for gastritis. However, Ms. Gutierrez was actually suffering from a far more serious abdominal infection.
The lawsuit papers further alleged that Dr. Taylor and the cruise line told Ms. Gutierrez and her husband that they could not be evacuated from the vessel and taken to an on-shore hospital. In truth, emergency evacuation services could have been arranged. Ms. Gutierrez sought emergency medical assistance at the ship’s next port in Mexico where she underwent abdominal surgery. Ultimately, she suffered abdominal sepsis, multiple organ failure, and a cerebral hemorrhage.
Cruise lines like Royal Caribbean have insulated themselves from lawsuits when ship doctors maim cruise passengers by characterizing the doctors as "independent contractors" for whom they are not liable.
Most cruise passengers don't understand that the doctors wearing officer stripes and cruise line uniforms and hats who treat them in the ship infirmary are somehow not ship doctors for legal purposes. Passengers usually don't read the fine print buries in the cruise ticket and are tricked into thinking that big, beautiful cruise ships like the Oasis costing over a billion dollars must hire highly trained, educated and experienced ship employees in the infirmaries and the cruise lines must be responsible for the doctors when they make errors. We have written about this issue many times before. Read: If the Ship Doctor Kills You, Too Bad.
So as matters now stand, when passengers are injured or killed due to malpractice of the doctors in the cruise ship infirmary, they can't sue the cruise line in most cases. They are left to try and seek the recovery of medical bills and other compensation from the doctors who are usually not U.S. citizens.
In Ms. Gutierrez's case, Dr. Taylor was born in the U.K. but for the last nine years he worked on cruise ships sailing from Florida. When Dr. Taylor was sued, the cruise lines hired its usual defense lawyers to defend him. They moved to avoid the lawsuit arguing that Ms. Gutierrez could not establish that Dr. Taylor was subject to personal jurisdiction here. However, Ms. Gutierrez's lawyers did a thorough job establishing a strong connection between Dr. Taylor and the state of Florida:
- Dr. Taylor entered into employment agreements in Florida with Florida-based cruise lines (Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines) over the course of nine years;
- Dr. Taylor's employment agreements specified Florida as the required jurisdiction to resolve any disputes with the cruise lines;
- Dr. Taylor attended annual medical conferences in Florida;
- Dr. Taylor received advanced cardiac life support certification in Florida;
- Dr. Taylor vacationed from time to time in Florida;
- Dr. Taylor made presentations at medical conferences in Florida;
- Dr. Taylor maintained two bank accounts in Florida;
- Dr. Taylor worked aboard cruise ships that embarked/disembarked at a Florida port one day a week;
- Dr. Taylor was on duty and treated passengers and crew members while the cruise ships were in Florida waters and returning to Miami, docked in Miami, and leaving Miami, weekly, over a course of nine years; and
- For all intents and purposes, Dr. Taylor worked and resided exclusively on a cruise ship.
Based on these undisputed facts, the trial court ruled that the ship doctor was clearly subject to jurisdiction in Florida and could be sued in the courts in Florida. The judge ruled that Dr. Taylor not only intentionally played a “shell game" to thwart jurisdiction in Florida, but he engaged in a "nefarious scheme" to avoid being sued in any court.
On appeal, in a 2-1 decision the Third District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court holding that the factors discussed above were insufficient to establish jurisdiction over Dr. Taylor. In my view, the appellate court nitpicked the lower court's findings and ignored the continuous and substantial relationship between the ship doctor and the state of Florida.
You can read the order here.
The result of this decision is cruise passengers' rights are further limited. This is exactly how the cruise industry wants it.
Ms. Gurierrez, a mother of young children, is left with permanent brain injury, huge medical bills and no compensation.
Royal Caribbean may boast that its 1.2 billion dollar mega-ship Oasis of the Seas is the largest and most technologically advanced cruise ship in the world. But as far as the treatment of gravely ill guests is concerned, the cruise line is sailing in Medieval times.
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Coincidence or a sign of mischief to come? The Wall Street Journal published an article in March 2010 about the Oasis of the Seas which mentioned Dr. Taylor talking about rarely medevacing passengers back to the U.S. This was two months before Ms. Gutierrez sailed on the Oasis:
The ship has three doctors on board. It also has its own intensive care unit and can keep one person at a time on life support. Every few weeks a passenger has a heart attack so thrombolytic drugs are kept on-hand, says Chris Taylor, the ship's senior doctor.
If there's a serious illness, the ship's doctors and captain can decide to divert to a port early, but rarely is anyone airlifted back to the U.S., says Dr. Taylor, who has been a doctor on cruise ships for seven years. "Many people have the belief that the U.S. coast guard is always going to come to the rescue if there is any emergency at sea. The actual truth of the matter is that most of the time the ship is well out of range of the coast guard," he says.
Photo credit: Dr. Chris Taylor - LinkedIn; Oasis of the Seas - Wikipedia / Baldwin 040.