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Maritime Law--Barbetta Rejected! Passenger May Sue Cruise Line Under Agency Theories

In Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., Docket No. 13-13067 (11th Cir. Nov. 10, 2014), the Plaintiff filed suit against Royal Caribbean for maritime negligence after her elderly father fell and hit his head while on one of Royal Caribbean's cruise vessels. The Plaintiff's father died a week after the injury. Plaintiff alleged that Royal Caribbean is vicariously liable for the negligence of two of its employees, the onboard nurse and doctor, under an actual agency or apparent agency theory. The court concluded that the allegations in plaintiff's complaint plausibly support holding Royal Caribbean vicariously liable for the medical negligence of its onboard nurse and doctor.

The court declined to adopt the Barbetta rule, which immunizes a ship owner from respondent superior liability whenever a ship's employees render negligent medical care to its passengers. The court found that the complaint in this cause plausibly establishes a claim against Royal Caribbean under the doctrine of actual agency, as well as the principles of apparent agency. Because the plaintiff adequately pled all the elements of both actual and apparent agency, the court held that plaintiff may press her claims under either or both theories. Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

This precise issue was discussed in the St. Thomas School of Law symposium on maritime law held in April of this year, which I blogged on some time ago. It was my point that the Eleventh Circuit had never decided, in binding precedent, whether a passenger may hold a ship owner vicariously liable for the medical negligence of the ship's employees. In Franza, the Eleventh Circuit pointed this out and also noted the case of De Zon v. American President Lines, Ltd., 318 U.S. 660, 669 (1943), which held that a "shipowner was liable in damages for harm suffered as a result of any negligence on the part of the ship's doctor." This was my point precisely--if a ship owner is liable in damages for harm suffered by a seafarer as a result of negligence on the part of the ship's doctor, how can a passenger, who has paid for a ticket on a common carrier, be excluded from ever suing the cruise line for the negligence of its doctor?

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