Friday Florida Law Update- Seaworthy Despite Negligent Medical Staff?

Hello all, TGIF, and welcome back for your Friday Florida Law Update! Today we look at a tragic incident that occurred aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. In Fleuras v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., 2011 WL 4467347 (Fla. 3d DCA Sept. 28, 2011), a deceased woman’s estate brought a claim against the cruise line, alleging that one of its ships was “unseaworthy” due to the negligence of its medical staff.

The sad facts of the case were that a ship photographer, Diana Fleuras, complained to medical personnel multiple times over the course of several days relating to abdominal and back pain.  In the course of treatment, she was diagnosed as pregnant, and days later underwent an abortion procedure from a physician in the Virgin Islands.  Upon her return to the ship after the abortion, she continued to complain of abdominal pains and repeatedly sought medical attention.  She was prescribed multiple medications by the ship’s medical staff.  One evening, while the ship was in port, Fleuras required emergency assistance.  An ambulance was summoned to the port, and Fleuras was transported to a hospital, where she subsequently passed away from complications due to her pregnancy — specifically, that she had an ectopic pregnancy (one where the embryo implants outside the uterine cavity).

Her estate sued Royal Caribbean, complaining that the ship was rendered unseaworthy by its negligent medical staff.  Specifically, Plaintiff alleged that the ship’s staff failed to adequately detect Fleuras’ ectopic pregnancy, failed to adequately document her symptoms, failed to provide sufficient history to the paramedics, failed to establish proper medical procedures or, alternatively, failed to follow them.

At the trial court level, the court granted summary judgment to Royal Caribbean on two grounds — 1) a single act of negligence by the medical staff was insufficient to deem a vessel as “unseaworthy,” and 2) a shipowner has no duty to establish procedures to govern medical emergencies.

On appeal, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed in part and reversed in part.  Essentially, the Third DCA agreed with the two points above.  However, the appellate court ruled that summary judgment was premature for two reasons.  First, Plaintiff was entitled to further discovery to determine whether the medical staff was incompetent generally (which would qualify a vessel as unseaworthy) or just had a single act of negligence (which does not render a vessel unseaworthy).  Second, Plaintiff was entitled to further discovery as to whether the ship had indeed promulgated emergency procedures because, while an owner has no duty to promulgate such procedures, if indeed they do enact procedures, they must be followed.  This is also known as the “undertaker doctrine.”  You may not have a duty to do something, but if you undertake the duty, you must carry it out in a non-negligent manner.

Despite some of the draconian features of this ruling, keep in mind that this also has a lot more to do with Royal Caribbean’s deep pockets.  Plaintiff is also of course free to pursue the physician directly for redress.

Have a great weekend!!

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