11th Circuit: “Barbetta Rule” on Cruise Ship Medical Injuries Obsolete

For years, ship owners had broad immunity whenever workers on board rendered negligent medical care to passengers. This was true regardless of how clear the shipowner’s control over its medical staff and without consideration for the egregiousness of the claimed negligence. cruiseship

This was largely due to the so-called “Barbetta rule,” named after the 1988 federal case of Barbetta v. S/S Bermuda Star, before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

However, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit – the one that oversees federal cases in Florida – recently declined to apply the Barbetta rule in a new case, Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises.

Our West Palm Beach injury lawyers recognize this means cruise lines may in fact be held vicariously liable per the doctrine of respondeat superior for the negligence of on-board medical personnel.

The long-standing Barbetta rule, the panel determined, is obsolete in today’s modern cruise ship industry. The court indicated there is no solid legal reason why special exemptions for vicarious liability claims should exist for all acts of medical negligence on board a ship. The court noted “much has changed” in the 25 years since Barbetta was decided, including the rise of a complex cruise line industry, the progression of modern technology and the evolution of legal norms. All of this, the court ruled, “erased whatever utility Barbetta once may have had.”

In this case, plaintiff was the daughter of a man who was a passenger aboard a cruise ship owned and operated by defendant. He traveled with his family to the Caribbean. While the ship docked in Bermuda, the man fell while getting on a trolley at or near the dock and suffered a significant head injury.

Although he could have been taken ashore for examination, evaluation and treatment, he was instead taken in a wheelchair to the on board infirmary. In fact, plaintiff alleges he was required to go to the ship’s medical center. The on-staff nurse reportedly neither administered nor recommended any diagnostic scans before declaring he was “fine” and sending him back to his cabin. She did caution he might have a concussion, and advised his wife to monitor him.

When his son and daughter-in-law noticed his condition rapidly deteriorating, they called for help. It took 20 minutes to get a wheelchair to his room. Even once he got to the exam room, staff would not examine him until they obtained credit card information. Some four hours after he was first seen in the infirmary, he was finally examined by a doctor.

The physician ordered him taken to a nearby hospital. However, the man did not arrive at that hospital until approximately 2.5 hours after seeing the doctor. By that time, plaintiff asserts, his life was beyond saving. He was airlifted to a hospital in New York the following day. He remained in intensive care for a week before he died.

Plaintiff sued the cruise line for the negligence of its medical staff, alleging staff failed to properly assess decedent’s condition, allowed the nurse to make a diagnosis without having a doctor assess him, failed to timely and appropriately treat decedent, failed to order appropriate diagnostic scans, failed to properly monitor decedent, failed to evacuate decedent from vessel in a timely manner and deviated from the standard of care for patients like decedent who had suffered a serious blow to the head.

Plaintiff asserted negligence of cruise line by both actual and apparent agency (meaning vicarious liability and direct liability). Trial court, citing the Barbetta rule, dismissed the case outright. However, the appellate panel reversed, finding both legal theories applicable because Barbetta is obsolete.

This does not mean cruise injury cases will be simple to pursue. However, by removing the broad immunity, the court has allowed cruise lines to be held accountable for such negligence.

If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7777 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Nov. 10, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

More Blog Entries:

3rd DCA: Read Fine Print on Cruise Ship Ticket if You Want to Sue, Oct. 23, 2014, West Palm Beach Tourist Injury Attorney