We recently wrote about the difficulties of suing cruise lines when people are injured aboard a cruise. The mix of punitive contractual provisions, federal maritime law, and choice of law and venue issues, make them difficult cases. Recently, our firm won a victory in court on behalf of one of our clients against a cruise line involving complex issues of agency, vicarious liability, and medical malpractice.
Tragic Onboard Death Leads to Suit
This tragic case involved the death of a Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (RCCL) cruise ship passenger who fell ill due to food poisoning. Her condition worsened, despite being seen by the ship’s medical staff. There was some discussion of whether she should be airlifted off the ship to a land-based hospital, but that was never done. As time went by, her condition worsened. Eventually, a ship nurse was called to our clients as she fell into deeper medical distress, and she later died.
Our firm undertook representation of the victim and her family and filed a lawsuit against RCCL, alleging medical malpractice. The basis of the suit was that the ship’s doctors failed to exercise reasonable medical care to our client and that had she been treated faster and more appropriately given her symptoms, she would have and could have survived.
Cruise Lines and Malpractice
Cruise lines and their doctors have a legally difficult relationship. On the one hand, a cruise line carries thousands of visitors into the middle of the ocean, and thus is required to have some form of medical services onboard in order to attend to ill or injured passengers. Some may even have full surgical suites inside of them for emergencies.
But like any doctor, cruise ship doctors make mistakes and can commit malpractice. This creates a dilemma for cruise lines. They are not in the business of medical care, so they claim, and thus, do not want to be responsible for the medical errors made by onboard physicians. To avoid liability for medical errors, cruise lines often try to distance themselves from the medical staff, as RCCL did here.
RCCL Tries to Avoid Liability
In our case, RCCL attempted to argue that it could not be liable for any malpractice the doctors may have committed, because the doctors were independent from RCCL. To support its argument, RCCL cited provisions in its cruise contract stating that passengers acknowledged that the doctors were independent contractors and agreed that RCCL would not be responsible for any of their medical errors.
By the cruise ticket, RCCL made passengers agree that the doctors are not supervised, controlled by, or working for the cruise line. Even RCCL’s agreement directly with the doctors stated that the doctors were independent from the cruise line.
Thus, RCCL attempted to have our case against them dismissed, saying no reasonable jury could ever find it liable for the actions of the doctors. But we pointed out to the Court that information in contracts is only one part of the analysis of whether a cruise line can be liable for a doctor’s errors. Juries are allowed to look at other factors to determine the extent of the control that a cruise line has, and if a jury finds enough control, that the doctors can be considered employees, and thus, the cruise line may be liable.
Through significant discovery efforts, we learned that the contract between RCCL and the doctors required the doctors to be on call 24/7. It required the doctors to get permission from RCCL before getting off the ship. It allowed RCCL to set the doctors’ working hours and what they charged. RCCL dictated which ships the doctors would serve on and the uniforms they wore.
RCCL also managed the actual medical centers that the doctors worked from inside the ships, as well as paid the doctor’s malpractice insurance. Doctors were subject to RCCL’s rules and regulations, including ones which prohibited the doctors from turning away patients.
The Court found these to be vital aspects of control, and that they should be considered by a jury, instead of being dismissed before the jury had the chance to hear the facts of the case.
Argument Over Agency
But RCCL did not stop there. They also argued that the doctors and nurses on the ship were not “apparent agents” of RCCL, as we alleged in our lawsuit. Thus, RCCL claimed it could not be responsible for the physicians’ malpractice.
Agency is where a principle—in this case, RCCL—makes representations that allow others to believe that someone—here, the medical staff—is acting in concert with the principle.
RCCL argued that it never made any statements to our clients that the medical staff was an agent of RCCL. Thus, there would be no basis for our client to believe that to be true, and RCCL should not be liable for the physician’s actions.
However, we were able to point out to the Court that the physicians were called “ship doctors,” and in fact were called officers, and that their services were billed through RCCL. This, the Court held, was enough for a jury to find that RCCL created the appearance that the doctors were authorized to act on behalf of RCCL.
The Court also found that there was enough evidence for a jury to determine that RCCL was liable for the food poisoning. As in most cases, both our client, and the other side had experts with differing opinions. Those differing opinions create issues of fact, which the Court held that a jury must determine.
The case is not won yet—the Court only determined that it should be allowed to proceed to a full trial before a jury. Still, we avoided dismissal, and the case is a victory which will now allow our clients to have their day in court for a tragic incident.
If you are injured on a cruise ship, make sure your attorneys understand the difficult issues involved. Contact the cruise ship and maritime injury lawyers at Brill & Rinaldi for a full consultation about your cruise injury case.