Baldwin Haspel Burke & Mayer LLC

Maritime Update: Cruise Line Can Be Liable for Medical Malpractice

In 1988, the Fifth Circuit decided Barbetta v. S/S Bermuda Star, 848 F.2d 1364 (5th Cir. 1988), which immunized shipowners from agency liability for medical malpractice claims.  The Barbetta Court reasoned that the doctors and nurses who work aboard cruise ships are not employees or agents, but rather independent professionals.  Additionally, the Court held that cruise ships are not in the business of providing medical care.  The “Barbetta Rule”, as it has come to be known, had been consistently applied by federal courts since it was decided over a quarter century ago.  That is until the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decided Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, No. 13-13067.

In Franza, the plaintiff fell and hit his head while Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas was docked in Bermuda.  He was seen by the ship’s nurse, who released him after providing essentially no medical treatment.  The plaintiff died a week later.  Suit was filed against Royal Caribbean in federal court in Florida.  Royal Caribbean moved for summary judgment relying on the Barbetta Rule.  The district court granted the motion.  On appeal, the 11th Circuit reversed.  The Court  declined to adopt the Barbetta rule and held that the plaintiff’s complaint establishes a colorable claim against Royal Caribbean under the theories of actual agency and apparent agency.   Significantly, the Court found that the reasoning underpinning the Barbetta Rule is no longer valid:

“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. We thus decline to adopt the Barbetta rule, and find that the complaint in this case plausibly establishes a claim against Royal Caribbean under the doctrine of actual agency, as well as a claim under the principles of apparent agency. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Franza is a groundbreaking decision that will open the door to cruise line passengers who have medical malpractice claims as a result of negligent medical treatment aboard ship.  As there is now a split of authority between the Fifth and Eleven Circuits, Franza may ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court.



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