Cruise Lines Are Responsible For Care Provided By Ship Doctors: Travel Myth or Fact?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

By Deborah Roberts and Nola Safro

Who hasn’t dreamed of a relaxing cruise? It sounds like the ultimate getaway.

“When people think of a cruise, they think all-inclusive floating vacation: sun, surf, sand, fun, maybe a little romance — that’s what they want,” said Chris Elliot, a writer for National Geographic Traveler magazine. “I think ‘The Love Boat’ really started everything.”

“The Love Boat,” with its schmoozy crew, including good old Doc Bricker, put cruising on the map. Nearly 10 million Americans will set sail this year. And it could be good for your health as long as you don’t need medical attention onboard.

Watch the story tonight on “20/20” at 10 p.m. ET

Who’s Responsible?

“The doctor is part of the crew, but the cruise lines claim no responsibility for the doctors’ actions,” said Miami attorney Charles Lipcon.

Bizarre as it may sound, he said the cruise lines are “not responsible for your overall medical care at all.”

“The cruise line’s responsibility in their mind ends at the point that they’ve hired a doctor who they claim is competent,” Lipcon said. “And then if the doctor doesn’t take proper care of that person, the cruise lines disavow any responsibility whatsoever.”

Mike and Janice Sullivan went on a Royal Caribbean cruise that ended in disaster when, they said, Janice slipped on liquid near the buffet and was knocked unconscious.

Mike said it took 30 minutes to get help and an hour before Janice saw the doctor.

“I didn’t know if she was dead or what,” he said.

Janice remembers the cruise line sat her down in a chair and put ice on her head. All the while she was “hurting really bad.”

According to Mike, the ship’s crew never suggested that they leave the ship for additional medical treatment.

“I trusted that they would recognize a problem if it was serious,” he said.

Emergency Surgery

Janice spent the rest of the trip in bed and a few days after they got home, but she soon had the scare of her life, discovering that she was paralyzed on her left side.

“When we got to the hospital, the doctor there had the CAT scan and found out there was a blood clot in her skull the size of my hand,” Mike said.

The doctors scheduled an emergency surgery, and Mike said his wife almost died.

“I was angry,” Mike said. “We were told by our family doctor…that…evidently when she fell, she had broken a blood vessel…and that it had been bleeding for 10 days.”

e Fine Print

Even worse, the Sullivans made a discovery that they couldn’t believe — the cruise line was not responsible for care provided by the medical staff.

“We didn’t learn that until much later when we were trying to hold the cruise line responsible for her injuries,” Mike said. “We were told by the cruise line that the doctors were independent contractors.”

It’s all in the fine print: on tickets, Web sites and brochures. That includes Disney Cruises, owned by the parent company of ABC News. It’s information even seasoned travelers like the Sullivans often don’t read until it’s too late.

“I was very angry, because any profession that you’re in, you have to be accountable to someone,” Janice said.

From a Dream Cruise to a Calamity

Iris Cruz and her family are determined to find justice after her grandmother’s dream cruise ended in tragedy.

Caridad Cruz, 70, fractured a bone in her arm while onboard.

“She would tell me, ‘I am going through a lot of pain,'” said Iris. “My grandfather would tell me, ‘Listen, she’s not acting like herself, something’s wrong.'”

Despite frantic phone calls from Iris’ grandfather onboard, Iris said the medical staff played it down.

“I mean they would talk to me so calm. ‘Oh, it’s gonna be OK, everything’s gonna be fine,’ Iris said. “You kind of relax and you say, ‘Ok, you know, these are nurses, these are doctors talking to you.'”

After Caridad had a second fall, the ship’s doctor recommended an air evacuation…but before that could happen, she died. An autopsy blamed an embolism brought on by the fracture. Lipcon is their attorney.

“If her grandmother had gotten off the ship in Mexico and flown home on travel insurance, there’s a good chance she’d be alive today,” said Lipcon.

Royal Caribbean Cruises disputes the allegations in these cases and defends the actions of the onboard doctors. But remember — they’re not legally responsible anyway. Plus, Lipcon said, doctors are often foreigners, who quickly move on to the next job.

“They tell us, ‘Well go ahead and sue the doctor.’ Well sure, find the doctor, you know, we’ve tried to do that, you can’t find them to sue them,” said Lipcon.

In his new book, “Unsafe on the High Seas,” Lipcon offers advice to keep yourself safe: Get travel insurance if yours doesn’t have an evacuation provision, bring copies of your medical records and tell the cruise line about pre-existing conditions, and if you have a serious medical problem, maybe a cruise is not right for you.

As for Iris’ family and the Sullivans, they’re continuing to pursue their cases in court.

“I mean, we’re captive aboard ship. If we can’t depend on medical personnel there, who can we depend on? Somebody’s gotta be responsible,” Mike said. “Somebody’s gotta be accountable.”