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Cruise ship doctors could be held liable after landmark ruling

Today’s modern mega cruise ships are engineering marvels. They include elaborate boulevards that resemble actual city blocks and shopping malls. They have multiple signature restaurants, waterslides, ice skating rinks and even rock climbing walls. They also have state-of-the-art medical facilities to handle people who become sick or injured in the course of having fun on their cruise.

However, if a patient is sickened or injured because of a doctor’s negligence, the patient was usually out of luck. Medical malpractice cases against cruise lines were commonly dead on arrival because of maritime laws that generally insulated cruise ship medical staffs from liability in U.S. courts. 

Nevertheless, a recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit may change this going forward. Essentially, the court rejected the application of the so-called “Barbetta rule” which immunizes a shipowner from liability under the legal theory of respondeat superior when a ship’s employees are negligent in rendering medical care to passengers. Because of this, a wrongful death action based on medical malpractice alleged against a ship’s doctor on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship was deemed worthy of going forward. It was initially dismissed by the trial for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

It remains to be seen whether the case will be successful at trial (the appellate court remanded the manner to the trial court for further proceedings), but it is an important decision that could affect future cases against cruise ships in the future.  

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