New hope for victims in Cruise Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

For years, courts have given verdicts favoring the cruise lines in medical malpractice lawsuits. Courts have been following the Barbetta rule since 1988, where it was held that passengers should not expect the same level of medical care on a ship as they would get when on land. Moreover, general maritime law does not impose liability under the doctrine of respondeat superior upon a carrier or ship owner for the negligence of a ship's doctor who treats the ship's passengers.


Victims and survivors of victims have not been able to win medical malpractice cases against cruise lines. However, a recent verdict given by a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals may be a game changer.


During the summer of 2001, Pasquale Vaglio, an 82-year-old retired NYC policeman was aboard Royal Caribbean’s “Explorer of the Sea” along with 18 of his family members. Everything was going well until the accident that changed everything for him and his family.


While on a sightseeing trip in Bermuda, Vaglio fell and hit his head. He was immediately taken to the medical unit of the ship where he was examined by a nurse. Upon examination, the nurse advised Vaglio to rest. However, when his condition deteriorated, he was seen by the ship’s doctor who sent him to King Edward VII Memorial Hospital. He was subsequently airlifted back to NY but died a week later of a brain injury.


Vaglio’s daughter filed a lawsuit against the cruise line alleging that the medical staff on the ship was negligent and failed to diagnose his condition and carry out or recommend any diagnostic tests.


The cruise line used the Barbette rule and argued that the medical staff was independent contractors and therefore the cruise line was not liable.


The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found the Barbetta rule to be outdated and noted that the doctor and nurse wore cruise ship uniforms and were presented as ship employees. The judges noted that the Royal Caribbean doctor and nurse used to wear cruise line uniforms and presented themselves as ship employees and that the onboard medical center was described glowingly in promotional materials. It further noted that, some modern cruise ships had sophisticated intensive care units, laboratories and the ability to do live video conference links with medical experts on shore.


Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus wrote: “Much has changed in the quarter-century since Barbetta. As we see it, the evolution of legal norms, the rise of a complex cruise industry and the progression of modern technology have erased whatever utility the Barbetta rule once may have had.”


While the ruling given by the 11th circuit does not end matters, but if the same is not overturned, it will give the Vaglio family an opportunity to argue their claims in front of the jury.


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