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Court decision challenges long-established medical malpractice exemption

A recent ruling by a federal appeals court has put cruise lines on notice that they could be held fully responsible for medical malpractice if their medical staff fails to take proper care of their guests. Significantly, in coming to the decision, the appeals court reversed over 100 years of law which provided exemptions for cruise lines from being held accountable for medical malpractice committed by on-board healthcare providers.

The ruling was based on a medical malpractice case involving a man who died of a brain injury on the Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas back in 2001. The man had fallen and hit his head not long after the ship disembarked. After the fall, he was examined by a nurse from the ship’s medical unit, but was only advised to rest. Eventually, he was examined more closely by a doctor and transferred to a hospital in Bermuda, but not until it was too late. After the man’s death, a medical malpractice lawsuit was filed against the cruise line for its failure to detect and address the injury in a timely manner. 

The change in law reached by the appeals court was largely based on the fact that on-board medical units have become increasingly sophisticated, such that they have the ability to offer much more sophisticated levels of care than was possible when the law was established.

The case is likely not over yet, and could eventually end up going before the U.S. Supreme Court. Royal Caribbean, not surprisingly, opposes the decision on the basis that cruise lines are not in the business of health care but of travel and vacations, and should not be held responsible as healthcare providers. Experts say that the main issue, if the decision is affirmed through further appeals, will be whether or not a cruise line is in control of the operations of its medical unit or staff. If not, they might not be able to be held liable.

Medical malpractice litigation is obviously an important means of obtaining recovery for patients, and this is a case we’ll be watching with interest. Readers should stay tuned for future developments and commentary.

Source: USA Today, “Ruling opens door for cruise malpractice lawsuits,” Curt Anderson, Dec. 23, 2014. 

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