On November 10th 2014, the Eleventh Circuit overturned the long-standing rule that cruise lines could not be sued for medical malpractice. In Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises , 2014 WL 5802293 (11th Cir. 2014), the Eleventh Circuit allowed a Plaintiff to sue a cruise line for the alleged medical negligence of the onboard ship doctor and nurse. This is a remarkable ruling because, since 1988, both federal and state courts have held that parties were not allowed to sue cruise lines for the medical negligence of its ship doctors and nurses. The long standing rule was adopted by the Fifth Circuit in Barbetta v. S/S Bermuda Star,  848 F. 2d 1364 (5th Cir. 1988), which held that cruise lines could not be vicariously liable for the negligence of its ship doctors or nurses because it could not exercise the required “control” over these individuals.
In Franza, the Eleventh Circuit declined to adopt the Barbetta rule and allowed the Plaintiff to sue Royal Caribbean Cruises for the alleged medical negligence of its ship doctor and nurse. The Court reasoned that, since 1988, the world of maritime commerce has changed immensely. Modern legal norms, the complexity of the cruise industry, and modern technology abolished whatever value the Barbetta rule once had. The Court held that, “we now confront state-of-the-art cruise ships that house thousands of people and operate as floating cities, complete with well-stocked modern infirmaries and urgent care centers.”
This ruling is important for several reasons. First, this decision is groundbreaking in its field because it opens up a new venue for medical malpractice lawsuits against cruise ships. Additionally, this ruling poses a potentially game-changing problem for cruise lines. Some cruise lines have actually required its passengers to agree to forum selection clauses indicating the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida as the only court with jurisdiction. Presumably one of the reasons behind this decision was to avoid putative lawsuits for medical malpractice of ship doctors and nurses. As such, this ruling is a victory for cruise line passengers who seek to hold ship doctors and nurses responsible for negligent medical treatment and care. There is now a conflict among the Circuit Courts, and since there is no binding Supreme Court ruling on this issue, there will likely be future litigation on this topic.