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Single Act of Negligence Does Not Render a Cruise Ship Unseaworthy

In FLUERAS vs. ROYAL CARIBBEAN CRUISES, LTD., 36 Fla. L. Weekly D2131a (Fla. 3d DCA Sept. 28, 2011), the Third District Court of Appeals of Florida held that a single act of negligence by an otherwise competent crew member does not render ship unseaworthy. The Plaintiff, individually, and as the personal representative of the Estate of Diana Elena Flueras (“Ms. Flueras” or “Crew Member”), appeals from a final summary judgment entered in favor of defendant Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. (“RCCL” or “Shipowner”) in an action alleging the unseaworthiness of RCCL's vessel, the Explorer of the Seas, arising out of the alleged negligence of the vessel's medical crew. Ms. Flueras was employed by Image Corp., The Image Group, or Image (collectively, “Image”), not by RCCL, as a photographer on the Explorer of the Seas. On October 10, 2005, Ms. Flueras visited the ship's infirmary complaining of back and abdominal pain.

On October 20, 2005, Ms. Flueras underwent an outpatient abortion procedure performed in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. The doctor sent a letter to the “Ship's Doctor” advising that the amount of tissue removed during the procedure was inconsistent with her gestational age and that she should submit to further testing to rule out an ectopic pregnancy. The ship's doctor did not complete this testing and after Ms. Flueras worsened on board the vessel, she was disembarked shoreside where the Ship's Doctor received a letter from the port agent indicating that Ms. Flueras had a ruptured ectopic pregnancy and intra-abdominal bleeding. Ms. Flueras died at the shoreside hospital on October 24, 2005. The primary cause of death was septic shock and a ruptured ectopic pregnancy.

Mr. Flueras filed an action for unseaworthiness, alleging that RCCL's vessel was unseaworthy because: (a) the vessel was unsafe and unfit as a consequence of RCCL's conduct; (b) the vessel was manned by a medical crew that was not properly trained, instructed or supervised; (c) the vessel's medical crew was unfit; (d) the vessel lacked adequate manpower for the tasks being performed; and (e) “[o]perational negligence existed in defendant's inadequate medical care provided to Ms. Flueras; incompetent medical care provided to Ms. Flueras, and unfit medical crew caring for Ms. Flueras.” Subsequently, RCCL moved for summary judgment on the ground that the Ship Doctor's negligent conduct could not render the vessel unseaworthy because Mr. Flueras failed to put the Ship Doctor's competence at issue. In response, Mr. Flueras argued that the crew members' conduct and incompetency, as well as the absence of or failure to follow shipboard policies and procedures rendered RCCL's vessel unseaworthy. Mr. Flueras also argued that the necessity for additional discovery precluded the entry of summary judgment. The trial court heard the motion on October 18, 2007, reserved ruling, and ordered the parties to submit supplemental memoranda of law. The trial court subsequently granted RCCL's motion for summary judgment.

The appellate court found that heart of the analysis in these cases is the crew member's specific knowledge, degree of skill, sufficiency of experience, and/or adequacy of licensure, and the affidavits produced by Mr. Flueras fail to directly challenge these aspects of the Ship Doctor's qualifications. Because the Ship Doctor's Harris's licensure, experience, knowledge, and skill remain unrebutted by the affidavits, the appellate court affirmed the trial court's entry of summary judgment on this issue.

This case addresses other issues related to the sufficiency of the discovery undertaken by Mr. Flueras and thus, the case was remanded for further proceedings. The case is lengthy and instructive and thus, if you are interested in obtaining a copy of this decision, please feel free to contact me at miamipandi@comcast.net or motero@houckanderson.com.

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