For more than 100 years, people have been unable to win medical malpractice lawsuits against cruise lines because of exemptions that began through a series of court decisions.
A 1988 ruling known as “Barbetta” allowed cruise companies such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival to get malpractice lawsuits thrown out before trials. Courts said passengers should not expect the same level of medical care on a ship as on land and ship’s doctors and nurses were private contractors beyond the cruise lines’ direct control.
However, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal appeals court, considering the Vaglio case has ruled that the exemption should no longer apply.
A retired New York City policeman and Korean War veteran, Pasquale Vaglio, was taken to the Royal Caribbean’s “Explorer of the Seas” medical unit immediately after falling and hitting his head. A nurse from the medical unit did a cursory examination and told Vaglio to rest in his cabin. A diagnostic scan was neither conducted nor recommended by the infirmary staff.
While in his cabin, Vaglio got steadily worse. After family members contacted ship personnel, it took 20 minutes to get a wheelchair to take him for the cabin to the infirmary. There was another delay as credit card information was obtained. Finally, after suffering from internal bleeding in his skull, Vaglio was examined by the ship’s doctor and sent to a hospital in Bermuda. Unfortunately, by that time Vaglio’s life was beyond saving, he passed away a week later.
The judges noted that the Royal Caribbean doctors and nurse wore cruise line uniforms and were presented as ship employees. Furthermore, the onboard medical center was described brilliantly in promotional materials.
In addition, some modern cruise ships have sophisticated intensive-care units, laboratories and the ability to do live video conference links with medical experts on shore.
The family’s initial victory could potentially affect 21 million people who voyage on cruises annually.
It is unclear as to whether or not the 11th Circuit will reconsider its ruling, which conflicts with other circuits’ decisions and could ultimately end up in the Supreme Court.