I have repeatedly reported about instances involving medical negligence committed by the medical staff onboard a passenger cruise ship. Many issues arise in cases involving a claim of medical negligence against a cruise line company brought by a passenger. If it is a passenger, the law has been well settled that a shipboard doctor is considered an independent contractor for which the cruise line will not be held vicariously liable for his or her negligence. Contrary to the law applicable to a claim brought by a passenger, if a crewmember receives negligent medical care and treatment from a medical provider chosen and paid for by the cruise line company to treat its crewmember, the cruise line can be held vicariously liable for the negligence of the medical care provider.
Many passengers are surprised to learn that the law is that a shipboard physician is considered an independent contractor, not an employee or agent of the cruise line company for purposes of imposing liability on the cruise ship company when medical negligence has occurred. Many passengers have learned about this law after they went onboard a cruise thinking that the ship’s medical staff were employed by the cruise ship company, and that they could rely upon the cruise ship company for accountability for its medical staff. Passengers become surprised to learn they’re considered independent contractors despite the appearances of being a shipboard employee.
When exploring legal liability of the cruise ship company for medical negligence, one must also explore whether the cruise ship company adequately equipped the ship for medical emergencies, as well as whether the cruise ship company was negligent in the selection or retention of the particular medical care provider accused of the medical negligence.
Recently, Miami hosted the annual Cruise Shipping Miami conference. The Miami Herald ran an interesting article discussing one aspect of the conference that was devoted to technological advances regarding cruise ship medicine and health and wellness. The exhibition actually had a pavilion devoted only to cruise ship medicine and health. This is good to hear, and will be good for passengers who travel onboard cruise ships. It also suggests that the cruise line company can be, and should be, doing more to address medical concerns that happen onboard a cruise ship, including the outbreaks of different types of illnesses or viruses, including the norovirus. The use of electronic records will help flag situations that might lead to an outbreak.
Dr. Arthur Diskin, who is now Royal Caribbean Cruises’ global chief medical officer, is quoted in the article. He discusses the problem in combating the outbreak of the norovirus, and how various measures have been tried but the cruise ship companies remain unsuccessful in avoiding outbreak of this virus. Diskin is quoted as saying: “It’s a constant battle and will continue to be a constant battle.”
The article shows there is technology available to the cruise line that should be utilized by them. When they are on the high seas, the shipboard physicians who may not have the necessary specialty to diagnose and treat particular emergency situations, can and should be using technological advances which enables the doctor to have immediate contact with a qualified shoreside medical doctor, provide this doctor with adequate records and diagnostic testing, and then receive feedback on what steps to take. The steps may include emergency evacuation. We are currently handling a case where the ship’s doctor failed to diagnose an emergency situation, and failed to promptly order an evacuation, resulting in an unnecessary death. Had these technological advances been utilized by the cruise ship company, and immediate contact made with an appropriate specialist shoreside, it is likely that a correct diagnosis would have been made sooner, an evacuation ordered, and the death avoided. We have seen similar situations in the past.
The cruise industry must be accountable for the medical care onboard the cruise ships. The law that finds that the medical care providers are independent contractors is outdated, and based on circumstances that no longer justify finding the medical staff to be independent contractors. If the cruise line companies are held accountable, and the laws change with respect to the independent contractor finding, the cruise lines are more apt to step up to the plate and implement the appropriate technology so as to ensure that passengers, as well as the crewmembers, receive better medical care and treatment.
Our firm has handled many cases involving passengers and crewmembers who have suffered harm as a result of medical negligence by the shipboard medical staff. Our Miami based maritime firm handles all types of personal injury and wrongful death claims under the admiralty and maritime laws of the United States.