Cruise Ships No Longer Exempt from Medical Malpractice Liability

Before 2014, many cruise companies that faced medical malpractice lawsuits were able to get these legal actions dismissed even before trial. Obviously, courts have always decided in their favor, exempting them from any legal responsibility (even if the medical team that these have on board fails to give patients the exact treatment they need) and telling patients that they should not demand from ships’ doctors and nurses the same level of medical care as on land; besides, ship doctors and nurses are beyond the direct control of cruise lines since they are private contractors.

This aura of immunity from medical malpractice is a result of decades of court decisions that have consistently acquitted cruise liners from medical negligence/liability. One case example, which cruise companies usually rely upon, is the 1988 Barbetta v. S.S. Bermuda Star lawsuit, wherein the court ruled that the duty of a carrier is to make sure that it employs a competent and duly qualified doctor; failure to do so would be violation of its duty. If the doctor hired, however, commits an act of (medical) negligence, then he or she alone, not the carrier, will be held accountable for such act.

A 2014 incident that occurred onboard one famous cruise ship led judges to reconsider the soundness of exempting cruise ships from any medical liability, considering the following facts: doctors and nurses are presented as ship personnel or employees and that their wearing of the cruise ship uniform is direct proof of this; today’s cruise ships have advanced laboratories, intensive care units and technologies which will easily enable their medical personnel to link with medical experts on shore through live video conferencing; and, cruise ships take pride in their onboard medical center, making sure that this is included in their promotional materials.

Fortunately, the only treatment required by most travellers is remedy for bruises, indigestion, sea sickness and sun burns. But, though safe from any serious medical condition, they will definitely not be safe from expensive infirmary bills, which most health plans do not cover, by the way. As regards those whose condition really needs emergency attention (like drowning, stroke, heart attack, allergic reactions and appendicitis) the major issue is that most likely they will not receive the treatment they need on time or, even if they would be treated, in many instances, treatment will be from the hands of those who lack training or who are more panicky than in control of what they are doing.

In its website, the Louis A. Vucci points out the unnecessary risk of injury suffered by many cruise passengers at the hands of members of a ship’s medical staff who lack training, especially for emergency situations, or who are not just capable of providing the standard of care that passengers are entitled to receive.

The laws governing cruise ship issues are much more complex than the laws governing land vehicles. There will always be a legal means for passengers who get injured during cruise vacations to get the compensation that they may be owed.