Today the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal published an opinion which recognizes the right of cruise ship passengers who become victims of medical malpractice to hold cruise lines vicariously liable for the negligence of the shipboard doctors and nurses.

The case is PATRICIA FRANZA, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Pasquale F. Vaglio versus ROYAL CARIBBEAN CRUISES, LTD., a Liberian corporation.  You can read the opinion (63 pages) here.    

Previously, cruise lines were able to hide behind the immunity defense set forth in Barbetta v. S/S Bermuda Star, 848 F.2d 1364 (5th Cir. 1988). The so-called “Barbetta rule” immunizes a shipowner Quatum of the Seas from respondeat superior liability whenever a cruise ship employee renders negligent medical care to its passengers. Cruise lines enjoyed broad immunity "no matter how clear the shipowner’s control over its medical staff or how egregious the claimed acts of negligence."

The Franza v. Royal Caribbean decision involved an "elderly cruise ship passenger (who) fell and bashed his head while the vessel, the Explorer of the Seas, was docked at port in Bermuda. The injured traveler, Pasquale Vaglio, was wheeled back onto the ship, where he sought treatment from the onboard medical staff in the ship’s designated medical center. Over the next few hours, Vaglio allegedly received such negligent medical attention that his life could not be saved. In particular, the ship’s nurse purportedly failed to assess his cranial trauma, neglected to conduct any diagnostic scans, and released him with no treatment to speak of. The onboard doctor, for his part, failed even to meet with Vaglio for nearly four hours."

The Vaglios then encountered another delay when "the onboard medical staff would not examine Vaglio until the ship’s personnel obtained credit card information." Tragically, Mr. Vaglio died a week later.

Mr. Vaglio’s daughter, Patricia, filed suit to hold Royal Caribbean vicariously liable for the shipboard medical team’s negligence under two theories: actual agency (also termed respondeat superior) and apparent agency. 

After the trial court dismissed Ms. Vaglio’s lawsuit under the "Barbetta rule," she appealed the dismissal of her case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal.  

In a decision authored by Justice Stanley Marcus, the Eleventh Circuit rejected the "Barbetta rule" and recognized that maritime employers have long been vicariously liable for the negligence of their ship employees. The Barbetta rule was fashioned at a time when ships had sparse, if any medical facilities, and often no ship doctor or nurses. But now the cruise industry boasts state-of-the-art medical facilities and touts that its cruise ship doctors and infirmaries comply with the the American College of Emergency Physicians guidelines. 

Justice Marcus pointed out that in a Royal Caribbean press release authored by Royal Caribbean cruise executive Adam Goldstein, he boasted about the cruise line’s "onboard laboratory equipment, x-ray units, and clot-busting thrombolytics" which were important to the public’s "tranquility and peace of mind." The court stated that it was "disingenuous for large cruise lines to disclaim any medical expertise when they routinely provide access to extensive medical care in the infirmaries they have constructed for this very purpose."

Justice Marcus stated: 

“Here, the roots of the Barbetta rule snake back in to a wholly different world. Instead of nineteenth-century steamships, we now confront state of the art cruise ships that house thousands of people and operate as floating cities, complete with well-stocked modern infirmaries and urgent care centers. In place of truly independent doctors and nurses, we must now acknowledge that medical professionals routinely work for corporate masters. And whereas ships historically went ‘off the grid’ when they set sail, modern technology enables distant ships to communicate instantaneously with the mainland in meaningful ways. In short, despite its prominence, the Barbetta rule now seems to prevail more by Philip D. Parrish Lawyer Miamithe strength of inertia than by the strength of its reasoning. In our view, ‘the reasons that originally led’ other courts to adopt ‘the rule have long since disappeared.’”

The decision is an important one because cruise lines will no longer entice cruise passengers aboard their cruise ships by representing the excellence of the medical care and then assert immunity when the shipboard doctors and nurses maim the passengers. 

The case was handled by trial lawyers Andy Waks and Joel Barnett at the trial level and appellate specialist Philip D. Parrish at the appellate level (photo right).  Mr. Parrish has handled other important maritime cases on behalf of cruise ship passengers.  Mr. Parrish successfully handled several high profile decisions for our firm’s clients: Chaparro v. Carnival (cruise lines have duty to warn of crimes in ports of call), Johnson v. Royal Caribbean (flowrider liability waiver is illegal), and Doe v. Princess (addressing scope of crew member arbitration agreement).    


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Photo Credit: Wikipedia / Wedel 04 CC BY-SA 4.0 Frank Schwichtenberg

  • Increasingly Reluctant Cruiser

    Wow and zowie. This is *big* news!

    Jim, what’s RC’s next logical step??? Appeal to SCOTUS?

    If this stands, this is a quantum leap forward into 21st century reality, a brilliant opinion that should help deliver to cruise pax, on-board facilities and medical personnel that live up to cruise line hype.

    Surely, cruise line risk managers are busy weighing the potential liability of maintain the cavalier status quo, or stepping up their game and properly vetting emergency medicine credentials of on-board medical staff, and properly equipping on-board facilities.

  • Martha and Richard Laux

    Congratulations Andy Waks and Joel Barrett on this landmark 11th circuit decision that you worked on a life time. All is well that ends well, if you know what I mean.

    I highly recommend your legal and maritime services…… never give up the ship!

  • Denise Acerra

    Thank you all for your timeless crusade to help passengers and their families who have fallen victims on these cruise ships due to the incompetance and bad judgement of their Doctors and Captains. I hope I will be able to find justice now for my sister in law who we lost last January at the hands of these people.

  • srg

    Recently cruised with NCL in January, 2015, whereby we were returning to the cabin and the “ship” suddenly experienced rough waters. Without any prior announcement from the Captain my husband fell unto his back; I placed several t/calls for assistance and more than 20 mins. passed before a steward came. He wasn’t able lift my husband off the floor; a couple came by and assisted us! I reported this to the Hotel Manger and received a generic response. I asked for the medical reports and accident reports and witnesses statements and still have not received them. On the day before disembarkment, my husband contacted a flu like virus and the “doctor” who examined him (after his hand touched his nose and tissues and stated that he was “sick” examined my husband w/o the proper disposable gloves. There in the hallway were crews members and I can only surmise that the “viruses” were passed from medical personnel to crew members to passengers. Again, I never received the “doctor’s notes and reports. This was a “sick ship”. What are my options., I have contacted NCL and have received a cruise credit for future usage. (lol)