A Different Kind of Seasickness: The Eleventh Circuit Confronts Vicarious Liability for Cruise Lines in the Medical Negligence Context

In Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., No. 13-13067 (Nov. 10, 2014), the Eleventh Circuit was faced with two questions of first impression, both concerning whether agency principles can exist between shipowner and medical personnel aboard the ship. Specifically, the court was confronted with the question of whether a shipowner be held vicariously liable for medical malpractice under actual agency principles and apparent agency principles.

Patricia Franza brought the suit after her father, Pasquale Vaglio, died due to alleged negligent medical care given onboard the ship “Explorer of the Seas” which is owned and operated by Royal Caribbean. Vaglio was an elderly passenger who fell and hit his head when the ship was docked at port. He sought medical attention at the ship’s medical center where he was seen not by a physician but by a nurse. The nurse informed him that he could return to his cabin. The nurse did not perform any diagnostic scans nor did she give any further treatment. After Vaglio’s condition worsened, he was returned to the medical center where the physician saw him and recommended a transfer to a Bermuda hospital. Vaglio was airlifted to a hospital in New York where he was in intensive care until he died, one week after he sustained the head injury.

Franza sought to hold Royal Caribbean Cruises vicariously liable for the actions of its doctor and nurse onboard the “Explorer of the Seas.” The district court dismissed the complaint in its entirety, applying a long standing maritime negligence rule (the “Barbetta rule”) in which a shipowner is immunized from respondeat superior liability whenever a ship’s medical personnel rendered negligent medical aid to the ship’s passengers. Barbetta v. S/S Bermuda Star, 848 F.2d 1364 (5th Cir. 1988).

The Eleventh Circuit rejected the use of the “Barbetta rule” as outdated. The Court cited the rise of the cruise ship industry and the modern technological landscape as making the liability exemption rule untenable. The Court thus found no reason why agency principles and liability for medical negligence should not apply in maritime medical negligence cases.

As the Court reasoned that there is no longer any valid reason for carving out an exception for acts of onboard medical negligence, the Eleventh Circuit held that both actual agency and apparent agency theories were available in this case. Additionally, the Court found Franza raised sufficient facts to support a claim against the cruise line under these theories. Thus, the Court reversed and remanded the decision of the district court.

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