Cruise Lines Responsible for Medical Malpractice to Passengers


August 28, 2003

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The law firm of Lipcon, Margulies & Alsina, P.A. has been successful in obtaining a landmark decision from the Third District Court of Appeals of Florida which now makes cruise lines directly liable for the negligent actions of medical staff and doctors aboard its ships who render bad medical care to passengers aboard its ships. In reaching its decision, the Florida appeals court expressly rejected an earlier decision of the Federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, styled Barbetta v. S/S Bermuda Star, which held that a cruise ship was not liable for the negligence of duly qualified doctors that it selects to render medical care to passengers aboard its ships. The Barbetta decision was relied upon by cruise lines to completely insulate themselves from claims by injured passengers who received bad medical care aboard ships.

This new decision stems from the claim of Elizabeth Carlisle, a young Michigan girl who was traveling aboard a Carnival Cruise Lines ship with her family when she fell ill with abdominal pain, lower back pain, and gastrointestinal difficulties. When she presented to the ship’s physician, Dr. Mauro Neri – a physician who has no professional or residential address in the United States, the Carlisle family was repeatedly advised that Elizabeth was suffering from the flu. When Elizabeth’s symptoms did not subside, the family decided to discontinue their cruise in Mexico and fly home to Michigan where Elizabeth was diagnosed as having a ruptured appendix. As a result of the rupture and subsequent infection, Elizabeth suffered debilitating complications including painful bowel adhesions and possible sterility. However, when her parents filed suit against Carnival in Miami-Dade County, Florida court, the Judge, Jon Gordon, decided not to allow the case to progress to trial, instead granting summary judgment against the Carlisles based upon the Barbetta decision. The Carlisle’s attorneys, who have represented hundreds of injured cruise passengers, appealed the judge’s decision. The Carlisle decision rendered by the Florida appeals court reversed the summary judgment granted by the lower court judge and will allow the Carlisles to proceed with their lawsuit against Carnival. The Carlisle decision is based upon the reality that cruise passengers at sea and in medical distress do not have any meaningful choice but to seek treatment from the ship’s doctor or nurse. This is a reality which was rejected by the Federal appeals court which decided Barbetta. The Barbetta decision was based on the fallacy that a cruise passenger in need of medical attention has some choice or option over the medical care available to them while the ship is at sea. The truth is, however, that there are no options for a cruise passenger who is in need of medical attention and the ship is hundreds or thousands of miles from its next port. If there was no doctor aboard the ship, the ship’s captain would have to divert the ship to the nearest port so that a passenger in need of emergency medical care could receive it; however, if the captain diverts the ship, it will interfere with the cruise line’s carefully scheduled itinerary. Nevertheless, if the captain fails to divert the ship in a medical emergency, the cruise line would be held responsible for the captain’s decision and its impact on the ill or injured passenger. The Barbetta decision had allowed the cruise lines to render themselves effectively immune from ever having to make such decisions by allowing them to hire non-U.S. licensed doctors, classify them as “independent contractors” and then not worry about the medical care rendered to its passengers. Fortunately, the Carlisle decision ends all of that and puts the responsibility for passenger care where it belongs – on the cruise line.