Court rules cruise line not responsible for misdiagnosis by ship’s doctor

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Our maritime lawyers handled this case that resulted in the ruling that was favorable to passengers. It is anticipated that application will be made to the United States Supreme Court to review the decision. View the initial favorible ruling, The Carlise Decision.

Court Rules Cruise Line not Responsible for Misdiagnosis by Ship’s Doctor
By Tom Stieghorst
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

In a big setback for people injured on cruise ships, the Florida Supreme Court decided Thursday that cruise lines aren’t responsible for the negligent acts of ship physicians who harm passengers during treatment.

The ruling means only the doctors can be sued. The company is protected unless it knowingly hired an incompetent or unqualified doctor.

That leaves injured passengers without recourse, plaintiff attorneys say. They argue that most doctors on cruise ships are foreign residents, putting them beyond the reach of U.S. courts for all practical purposes.

A spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Lines, the company that was sued in the case decided by the Supreme Court, referred calls to its outside counsel Jeffrey Maltzman. Efforts to reach Maltzman were unsuccessful.

Florida law is especially significant because the major cruise lines, such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, are based in Florida. Their ticket contracts say suits must be brought in South Florida courts.

The ruling overturns a 3rd District Court of Appeal decision in favor of Elizabeth Carlisle, a Michigan teen whose ruptured appendix was misdiagnosed on a Carnival ship in 1997. On a family cruise to Mexico, Carlisle had stomach pains and was told by the ship’s doctor she had the flu. When she flew home, the true problem was discovered.

Carlisle, who was 14 years old, was rendered sterile by the rupture and subsequent infection, the court said.

In its 20-page opinion, the Supreme Court said there was merit in Carlisle’s case. The lower court had sided with her, saying that the doctor appeared to be an employee of the cruise line. Carnival argued he was an independent contractor.

The Florida Supreme Court agreed, saying that federal maritime law was settled in favor of the cruise lines, despite a lone federal case that disagreed. Since ships move through different state and international jurisdictions, it said, they must face uniform laws.

Tracking down foreign doctors and compelling them to appear in U.S. courts is extremely difficult, attorneys say. In previous court filings, Carlisle’s attorneys said they were unable to serve papers on the English doctor who treated Elizabeth.

The ruling only applies to cruise customers. Under a U.S. labor law, the same doctor who is considered a contractor when treating passengers is deemed an employee when treating crew, giving the cruise line shared liability for any mistakes.

“It’s a perfect decision to be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court and I think it will be,” he said.