Liability for Medical Malpractice

The Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit (Alabama, Florida and Georgia) has opened the door to a potential flood of liability exposure for vessel operators for negligence of shipboard doctors and other medical personnel.

The 2014 case of Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. arose out of the injury and death of Pasquale Vaglio, an 82-year-old cruise ship passenger who fell and struck his head while disembarking for a shore side excursion in Bermuda. Immediately after the accident, Vaglio was taken to the medical facilities aboard Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas for treatment. The ship’s nurse failed to properly assess Vaglio’s condition. When Vaglio was examined further by the ship’s doctor hours later, he was in need of critical emergency treatment for a brain injury.  He was airlifted to a New York hospital and died a week later. Vaglio’s family brought suit against Royal Caribbean, claiming that it was liable for the negligence of its medical personnel.

The suit was initially dismissed by the trial court, based on longstanding precedent that historically protected vessel operators from the negligence of shipboard medical staff. That general exception to a vessel operator’s liability was based on the rationale that the nature of a physician’s specialized skill and training made it unreasonably impractical to fall within the scope of management and/or oversight by the vessel owner/employer.  Other courts had held that vessel operators were incapable of controlling onboard medical personnel because the patient typically determined the nature and extent of the treatment. In breaking from the longstanding law on this issue, the 11th Circuit re-instated the case. Essential to its ruling was what the appellate court noted as a progression of modern technology over the past decades and the expansion of the employment of medical personnel in corporate settings, including the shipping industry. Such developments, in the 11th Circuit’s view, have made it easier for vessel management to oversee and control the medical personnel they employ.   Consequently, the Franza case holds that vessel owners and operators can now be held liable for the medical malpractice of physicians that serve aboard their vessels. Royal Caribbean said it may appeal the ruling.

This article first appeared in Work Boat magazine. It was also posted on March 1, 2015, at Work Boat’s website.