Cruise ships, medical malpractice and the law

Friday December 26, 2014

As the weather turns colder, many Connecticut residents enjoy taking a vacation somewhere with warmer weather. Many people enjoy taking a cruise in the Caribbean, as this kind of vacation can easily accommodate kids and older family members. However, accidents can happen anywhere. When they occur on a cruise, proper medical care may be hard to come by and the legal issues that arise may be very different from those on land. Recently, a court case may have changed the legal landscape in some of these cases.

The case involved an 82-year-old man who fell and hit his head while on a cruise with his family. A nurse aboard the cruise ship examined him but failed to notice that the man had suffered a brain injury. He died several days later.

On land, this might have been a typical medical malpractice case, and the man’s survivors would have been able to sue the employer of the nurse, but the fact that the incident took place at sea complicated matters. When the man’s family filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the cruise line, a court originally dismissed their claim, citing a longstanding precedent.

For many years, court decisions held that cruise lines could not be held liable for malpractice by their onboard medical staff. The reasoning for these decisions was that passengers should not expect the same level of medical care onboard a ship as they would on land. In addition, courts held, the cruise lines could not be held liable because medical staff aboard cruise ships were usually independent contractors and not employees of the company.

However, a federal appeals court recently reversed that decision, calling for a change in the law. The court noted that cruise brochures touted the effectiveness of its medical staff and that the medical staff appeared to be employees. The family’s case will now be allowed to proceed.

It may be too early to tell how this ruling will affect future lawsuits over cruise ship injuries, but the case does illustrate some points for all medical malpractice lawsuits. While negligent medical personnel can typically be held liable for their own negligence, it’s often important to hold their employers — whether they are hospitals, clinics or cruise lines — liable as well. Connecticut attorneys with experience in these matters can help the injured and their families to understand their legal options.

Source: Connecticut Post, “Ruling opens door for cruise malpractice suits,” Curt Anderson, Dec. 23, 2014

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