It's well established that there's no respondeat superior liability levied on ship owners for the negligent medical care of the ship's crew, no matter how negligent they are. But what about an agency theory? That was an issue of first impression for the Eleventh Circuit in Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises.
The short, short version: Pasquale Vaglio fell, hitting his head while Royal Caribbean's "Explorer of the Seas" was docked in Bermuda. The ship's nurse failed to correctly diagnose his head trauma, had him wait for four hours, then "released him with no treatment to speak of." Vaglio died a week later.
Broad Federal Authority in Admiralty
A federal district court in Florida tossed the case thanks to precedent from 1988 in the form of Barbetta v. S/S Bermuda Star, which articulated the above rule about respondeat superior liability. Barbetta, though, comes from the Fifth Circuit (and from well after the current Eleventh Circuit was carved out of the Fifth Circuit); the Eleventh Circuit declined to adopt it because of "the evolution of legal norms, the rise of a complex cruise industry, and the progression of modern technology."
The Eleventh Circuit justifies its power to create new maritime torts by citing to a long tradition of federal courts taking such action pursuant to their constitutionally mandated jurisdiction to hear cases arising in admiralty. It then extended the authority to create agency liability by noting that, "even absent any statutory mandate, the Supreme Court and all of the federal circuits have for many years generally applied agency rules across a rich array of maritime cases."
As a factual matter, the onboard doctor and nurse were Royal Caribbean's agents. Even though Royal Caribbean claimed the passenger contract purported to limit liability for medical services because the medical staff are "independent contractors," the Eleventh Circuit's opinion is a double whammy against contracts purporting to relieve from liability those things that can't be relieved, and claims that a person is an independent contractor because the company says so.
The Eleventh Circuit also reversed the district court on the issue of "apparent agency," finding that, yes, indeed, there was an apparent agency relationship, in which the third party detrimentally relies on what he reasonably believes is a relationship between the purported agent and principal. The Eleventh Circuit didn't see anything wrong with applying apparent agency to the maritime context, again because of the federal courts' broad authority to craft maritime tort law.
Finally, as this appeal came on a motion to dismiss, the court found that the plaintiff did plead sufficient facts to show not only that agency liability existed, but that the medical staff -- and thus, Royal Caribbean -- acted negligently. We'll probably see this case next at the Supreme Court, which may or may not decide to endorse federal courts' ability to broadly create new maritime tort theories.