Our maritime lawyer Charles R. Lipcon was interviewed for an ABA Journal piece on the devastating cruise ship accidents that have taken place over the years, and the many ways in which cruise industry clauses prevents victims from obtaining the justice they deserve.
The piece, titled “For vacationers encountering trouble on cruise ships, U.S. laws may provide little help,” explores what our maritime law firm has always known, that cruise lines have been able to avoid liability for accidents they have contributed to because of clauses in their passenger ticket contracts. These clauses prevent injured passengers from taking legal action, even in the U.S.
The main problem stems from the fact that the fine print on the ticket isn’t visible to passengers when they book their cruise. Travelers only receive their documents a few weeks before setting sail – if at all. At one point, a hard copy of the passenger ticket contract was mailed to cruise guests so they might read over the stipulations, but these days, passengers are lucky if they are able to download the contract off the Internet the day before their voyage.
Another way the cruise industry limits its liability is by registering ships in foreign countries, where maritime laws are far less strict than in the United States.
The article also explored one of the worst ways in which the safety of cruise passengers is limited – giving ship doctor’s the ability to make the medical decisions without subjecting the cruise lines to liability for bad medical care.
Onboard physicians, many times, are allowed to call the shots when deciding whether a passenger should be evacuated or not. If the doctor doesn’t evacuate the patient, said patient has the right to disembark the ship and procure their own medical attention.
This is what happened to 14-year-old Elizabeth Carlisle in 1997, when she became ill onboard the Carnival Ecstasy. Carlisle was taken to the ship’s doctor, Raymond “Rusty” Oenbrink, who diagnosed the teen with the flu. However, what Carlisle really had was a ruptured appendix.
Because she wasn’t immediately treated onboard the ship, Carlisle developed an infection that rendered her sterile. Did Carnival take responsibility for allowing the doctor to commit medical malpractice? Absolutely not.
At one point, the Carlisle case was responsible for establishing culpability for the cruise lines when their doctors commit malpractice, but this decision was overturned in 2007 by the Florida Supreme Court.
Mr. Lipcon, who represented Carlisle, spoke with the ABA Journal on the matter, explaining he believes the appeal was decided wrongly because of old maritime laws. These laws allowed doctors to make arrangements with cruise ships to offer free medical care in exchange for free passage. Had the doctor involved in Carlisle’s case been properly paid, perhaps we’d have a different story to talk about. But since the doctor wasn’t technically an employee of the cruise line, Carnival wasn’t liable for the malpractice.
These kinds of incidents – and far worse – occur on cruise lines around the world, yet cruise companies are still able to get away with negligent actions. It’s important for any cruise passenger who has suffered an illness, injury or crime to contact an experienced maritime lawyer immediately to discuss their rights and options in filing a case.
There are other theories to hold the cruise lines liable for bad medical care, but there is not hard and fast rule on when or how to apply these theories. It is a matter for an admiralty and maritime lawyer who can be creative in avoiding the worst consequences of the present state of the law on bad medical care.