Captaining the Ship into Culpability: Barbetta, Franza, and the Efficacy of Imputing Liability to Corporate Shipowners in the Medical Malpractice Context

Matthew T. Drenan | Comment

“Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

The timeless words of Will Munny in Unforgiven resonate when considering the efficacy of imputing liability to the corporate shipowner in the medical malpractice context. Should cruise ship corporations be held liable for the negligence of their onboard medical personnel? And, is there anything inherent about the maritime setting that should automatically immunize cruise ship corporations from vicarious liability?

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit answered these questions affirmatively in Barbetta v. S/S Bermuda Star, categorically barring a passenger/plaintiff from reaching the deep pockets of a corporate shipowner, despite falling victim to the negligence of the ship’s medical staff. Based on the central tenet of control, the Barbetta court held cruise ship companies exempt from liability because such corporations lacked the ability to meaningfully oversee the work of specialized physicians, could not interfere in the doctor-patient relationship, and ultimately because the provision of medical services was ancillary to a cruise ship company’s primary business.

Nearly thirty years later, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit took Barbetta head-on in Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., finding, alternatively that corporate shipowners could be held vicariously liable in the medical malpractice context. Based on a fact-intensive analysis, the Franza court observed that actual agency relationships should be determined on an individual basis, and that nothing inherent about the cruise ship industry made it different from other nonmedical businesses that provide physician services and have not garnered exempt liability status.