A recent appellate court decision by Judge Stanley Marcus may change the way medical malpractice cases involving cruise ship doctors are handled in the future. The case in question involved Mr. Pasquale Vaglio, a passenger on a Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCCL) trip. Mr. Vaglio fell upon boarding the cruise ship, docked in Bermuda at the time, and sought medical attention from the on-ship doctor. According to his daughter Patricia Franza, Mr. Vaglia “allegedly received such negligent medical attention that his life could not be saved. In particular, the ship’s nurse purportedly failed to assess his cranial trauma, neglected to conduct any diagnostic scans, and released him with no treatment to speak of.”

Ms. Franza filed a wrongful death lawsuit against RCCL. Her complaint was originally dismissed, but Ms. Franza appealed the decision. Judge Marcus reversed and remanded the decision, claiming that “the allegations in Franza’s complaint plausibly support holding Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., vicariously liable for the medical negligence of its onboard nurse and doctor.”

Why this case was not as clear cut as it may seem

The reason why the original judge dismissed Ms. Franza’s suit has to do with a very complex area of the legal system known as maritime law. Maritime law, also called Admiralty law, governs offenses (both civil and criminal) that take place at sea. Transport vessels – whether of goods or of passengers – are subject to maritime law.

What makes cruise ships lawsuits so difficult is that every country has its own maritime laws, and not all laws are applicable in all places. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., for example, is an American/Norwegian company that was incorporated in Liberia but is based in Miami – and in the case of Mr. Vaglio, had been docked in Bermuda when the accident happened but may have already been in international waters when the negligence occurred.

Furthermore, cruise ships may have fine print that prohibits you from filing a claim (for medical malpractice, a crime or an injury) past a few specific dates; if the statute of limitations runs out before you file, you may be unable to start a lawsuit.

In sum, it may be incredibly difficult to determine whose laws are applicable at any given time when a person is on a cruise ship. What Judge Marcus has really done is give people who are victims of medical negligence on cruise ships a fighting chance to seek compensation for their bills or their losses – a chance that proved all too elusive before his ruling.

If you have questions about medical malpractice, we encourage you to visit our medical malpractice website.