After her father Richard Puchalski experienced shortness of breath aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise and subsequently died from a heart attack, Jennifer Goodloe filed a federal lawsuit on March 23 in Florida.
Ms. Goodloe alleged the ship’s medical staff under diagnosed her father’s heart attack and unduly delayed his evacuation to a hospital, leading to his death.
“The shipboard physicians and medical personnel continued in providing faulty medical care which did not comport with the standard of care and thereby continued the prolonged delay of proper medical treatment,” wrote Ms. Goodloe’s attorney, Todd R. Michaels, in his March 2018 complaint to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. “Mr. Puchalski’s condition therefore deteriorated and he eventually expired, all of which could have been prevented.”
Ms. Goodloe’s complaint, currently in litigation, is among the 83 federal cases filed against cruise lines in the first quarter of 2018, according to Bloomberg data.
“A cruise ship is a huge floating city with no police and no real equivalent to an American hospital or medical care,” said Jamie Barnett, president of International Cruise Victims Association (ICV), a nonprofit organization formed by family members of cruisers who have been assaulted, injured, disappeared or died on a ship. “That’s especially egregious when so much of the demographic that’s cruising is elderly.”
For example, 57% of Royal Caribbean International’s cruisers in 2017 were over the age of 60, according to company data.
Maritime Attorney Jim Walker said some cruise lines may opt to avoid medically treating passengers to lower the cost of litigation.
“A passenger often gets a worse medical outcome just due to the fact that they’re on a cruise and being treated by ship doctors, many of whom are inexperienced or not properly vetted,” said Mr. Walker. “Because there’s more bad results due to a ship doctor’s incompetence or negligence, cruise lines often choose not to treat ill or injured passengers at all.”
Patricia Franza sued Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines following the death of her father Pasquale Vaglio, who fell and hit his head while the vessel, Explorer of the Seas, was docked in Bermuda. The suit claims Mr. Vaglio received such negligent medical attention on the ship that he later died.
“The complaint in this case plausibly establishes a claim against Royal Caribbean under the doctrine of actual agency as well as a claim under the principles of apparent agency,” wrote the 11th Circuit Court justices when they reversed and remanded the Franza case to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
“Not only do you run the risk of not getting adequate medical care if you are injured on a shipboard attraction, but there’s also unlimited alcohol for a low price, which is incredibly irresponsible given the fact that people become so uninhibited,” said Ms. Barnett, whose 25-year-old daughter Lila Ashley Barnett died on a cruise in 2005.
It used to be that attorneys were hesitant to sue a cruise line because of general maritime law, but Mr. Walker set a new trend in the 2010 case Charlene Johnson v Royal Caribbean involving onboard activities that today include skydiving simulators, biking above the ocean and simulated surfing.
“The cruise ships today are a lot bigger,” said Mr. Walker. “They’re essentially floating water parks with attractions like Rock Climbing and Flow Rider on the Royal Caribbean, which is very dangerous, simulated surfing.”
Although she signed a waiver and release of liability for onboard activities, Ms. Johnson sued Royal Caribbean after fracturing her right ankle on the Flow Rider.
“Plaintiff’s injury required surgery including insertion of a metal plate and nine screws,” wrote Mr. Walker, who was Ms. Johnson’s attorney.
After the lower court barred Ms. Johnson’s negligence suit claiming that the waiver she signed was enforceable, Mr. Walker filed an appeal and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal justices in Atlanta reversed and remanded the case, stating on February 7, 2012 that “Congress has spoken on this very type of waiver and has unequivocally prohibited it and rendered it void.”
According to Mr. Walker, codification occurred under 46 USC §183 (a) which states that the owner, master, manager, or agent of a vessel transporting passengers between ports in the United States or between a port in the United States and a port in a foreign country may not include in a regulation or contract a provision limiting the liability for personal injury or death caused by the negligence or fault of the owner or the owner’s employees or agents nor the right of a plaintiff for personal injury or death to a trial by court of competent jurisdiction.
Other than requiring passengers to sign waivers, Ms. Barnett of ICV claims the cruise lines have a myriad of methods to defend themselves, including sailing under the flags of foreign countries.
After her daughter died aboard a Carnival cruise, Ms. Barnett says her body was dropped off in Mexico.
“The cruise line called to tell me she had passed away, but they didn’t know why,” said Ms. Barnett, who settled Barnett v Carnival Cruise Line out of court. “When her body finally was transported home to Los Angeles, the coroner wouldn’t do an autopsy because she had already been autopsied and embalmed in Mexico.”
The grieving mother turned advocate hired a private, forensic pathologist who used the fluid in Ashley’s eyes to determine cause of death.
“His study indicated that her organs were healthy and her body was in pristine condition with some evidence of alcohol consumption,” said Ms. Barnett. “There were no signs of trauma. Ashley died of the toxic effects of methadone.”
Here are some points people should know before planning a cruise:
- Do not let your children out of your sight. “You have no idea who is caring for your kids when you drop them off at an activity,” said Ms. Barnett.
- Always watch who’s preparing your drinks and don’t leave your drink unattended.
- Read the cruise ship’s terms and conditions. “The first obstacle to sue for an injury is having to give written notice to a cruise line within six months detailing the facts and circumstances of the accident stating your intention to file a lawsuit,” said Mr. Walker.
- There are no federal guidelines to establish minimum standards for medical care on cruise ships.
- Lawsuits must be filed in federal court. “Most cruise companies are headquartered in Miami, Florida, and the federal courthouse was built to look like a cruise ship,” said Ms. Barnett.
- There’s a one-year statute of limitation.
- Use the buddy system. Don’t go anywhere on a ship alone.
- Don’t let your guard down. “Although people you may meet on a cruise are nice, they are strangers, and bad people go on vacation, too,” Ms. Barnett said. “You can’t just close your eyes and think you’re perfectly safe. You’re not.”