MIAMI, Florida–Sometimes we do not think about what happens if there is a serious accident or injury when a cruise ship is at sea, and the injured person requires immediate specialized medical treatment, such in the case here for a Royal Caribbean crew member. The 20-year-old crew member suffered a serious spine injury performing her regular job duties on board the Legend of the Seas ship.
Various news reports discuss how difficult the evacuation proceedings were, which indicates the seriousness of the injuries, and suggests potential paralysis as a concern. Evacuations at sea are very difficult and normally will not be performed except in the most serious situations where the injured person is suffering a potential life-threatening condition, or a condition that must be treated immediately by the appropriate specialists.
Cruise ship companies typically have on board a doctor that have some training in emergency room medicine. Historically, doctors on cruise ships have been from all over the world with questionable credentials. Many were not licensed in the United States, and many did not have a specialty with any relevancy to the type of injuries or illnesses that would typically be faced by a ship’s doctor on a cruise ship. In fact, I remember a incident where a crew member suffered heatstroke at a port, which can be treated successfully, but the ship’s doctor, who was from a foreign country and who had failed a test to become licensed in the United States on three separate occasions, completely misdiagnosed the condition. As a result, the appropriate treatment was not provided and the crew member died.
There are many reported cases replete with examples of medical negligence that occurred on a cruise ship resulting in serious injury or death. Typically, the cruise ship companies have escaped liability for the negligence of their medical staff by arguing that the medical staff on board are independent contractors for which they have no liability for their negligence. Historically, this has been a valid defense for the cruise ship company, leading to very harsh results, as typically the doctors were from foreign countries and it was very difficult to hold the doctor accountable for their negligence. This meant that many times victims of medical negligence on a cruise ship went uncompensated.
Fairly recently, an important case under the General Maritime law was issued which provided an opening for holding the cruise ship company responsible for the medical negligence of their staff, recognizing that the industry has changed dramatically, and that cruise ship companies have become much more involved in the medical care and treatment of their passengers and crews than they had been previously. One of the main reasons the medical staff was considered independent contractors when a passenger sued the cruise company for medical negligence of the medical staff was that the company did not get involved in the medical care, as they are a cruise ship company, not in the business of medical care. However, with more cruise ships and bigger cruise ships, and millions of passengers on board, the cruise lines have developed medical departments, hired specialists, and implemented technology so that they can in fact oversee medical care and treatment provided to passengers when there is a serious injury or illness. The court now recognizes their increased involvement, and that passengers believe the ship’s medical staff are in fact employees of the cruise ship company. Accordingly, although it is difficult to hold the cruise ship company accountable for medical negligence when a passenger is the victim, there is hope of doing so based on the current case law.
This particular case here involving a 20-year-old crew member would not fall within the case law that recognizes the medical staff to be independent contractors if the case involved evidence of medical negligence on the part of the medical staff on board. Under the maritime law the ship’s medical staff are considered to be agents of the cruise ship company and the cruise ship company is in fact responsible for their negligence in the treatment of the crew member unlike in the case of a passenger
Also of interest in this story is the fact that WorkSafe New Zealand did not get involved in the investigation because the cruise ship is registered in the Bahamas and based in the Asia-Pacific region. As is always the case, the question is who will properly and thoroughly investigate this accident to determine the true cause of the injury to this 20-year-old crew member.
Our prayers go out to this young 20-year-old crew member and her family that the injury turns out not to be as serious as feared, and at the crew member is able to make a full recovery and return to work. It would be very unfortunate and sad to hear of a career ending injury to a 20-year-old crew member.