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Cruise Ship Owners No Longer Immune from Medical Malpractice Claims

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently ruled that cruise ship owners can be held vicariouly liabile for harm caused to passengers by medical malpractice committed by the ship's medical staff. Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., Case No. 13-13067 (Nov. 10, 2014). This decision reverses longstanding precedent that immunized cruise ship owners from such claims regardless of how egregious the malpractice was.

The court reasoned that the historical grant of immunity to cruise ship owners was based upon conditions that no longer existed. Years ago when a cruise ship left the dock it was "off the grid" with little opportunity to avail itself of the full range of medical services and technology available on shore, but those circumstances no longer exist. Cruise ships now market as possessing state-of-the-art medical services with board certified physicians and modern technologies combined with access to medical specialists not on the ship.

This decision will impact malpractice cases against cruise ships in the states of Florida, Georgia and Alabama, which are within the Eleventh Circuit. It will not impact such cases in the Fifth Circuit, which includes the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, as existing precedent in the Fifth Circuit continues to immunize cruise ship owners from medical malpractice claims. Whether the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately grant review of the Eleventh Circuit decision to resolve the conflict between the federal circuits remains to be seen.

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