Cruise company not responsible for doctor's malpractice

John O'Brien Feb. 15, 2007, 2:30pm


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a lower court's ruling that a cruise company is responsible for the actions of the doctor on board.

None of the seven Florida justices dissented, and Justice Peggy Quince delivered the opinion of the Court, which states that Carnival is not vicariously liable in the medical malpractice claim against Dr. Mauro Neri.

Darce Carlisle alleged that daughter Elizabeth was diagnosed with the flu by Neri during a 1997 cruise, but she actually had appendicitis.

Her appendix ruptured and she suffered an infection, leaving her sterile.

"We find merit in the plaintiff's argument and the reasoning of the district court," Quince wrote. "However, because this is a maritime case, this Court and the Florida district courts of appeal must adhere to the federal principles of harmony and uniformity when applying federal maritime law.

"At the time the instant case was decided by the Third District, with the exception of Nietes (v. American President Lines, Ltd.), the federal maritime law uniformly held that a ship owner is not vicariously liable for the medical negligence of the shipboard physician."

In Nietes (1959), an injured passenger alleged that the ship's doctor and nurses were employees of the shipping company that owned the vessel. The court found the allegation sufficient for a cause of action and denied the defendant's motion to dismiss, but ultimately concluded that the doctor was an independent contractor.

The court also said if the ship's physician is a salaried member of the crew and under the general direction and supervision of the company's chief surgeon, then the company would be responsible for his or her negligent treatment of a passenger.

The Third District Court of Appeal in Miami felt that the record indicated control by Carnival over Neri's medical services and called the Nietes decision "ancient" and lowered the standards for determining if a doctor is in the control of the company.

"The position espoused by the Third District has some appeal because much has changed in the world in the 100 years since the earlier courts held ship owners immune from such claims," Quince wrote.

In the end, the Court did not want to stray too far from established federal maritime law.

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