If you get sick or injured while on a cruise, in most cases your only option is to seek treatment onboard. Large cruise ships have a medical facility (commonly called an “infirmary”) onboard, and smaller cruises will typically have a doctor onboard who is available to provide first aid and basic emergency care as needed.

Let’s say you seek treatment onboard a cruise ship, and let’s say your doctor makes a mistake. If this happens do you have a claim for medical malpractice? If so, will recovering financial compensation involve suing the cruise line? Or will you need to pursue another source of financial recovery?

These are all complicated legal questions—although instances of medical malpractice will be fairly obvious in some cases. If you have questions about suing for medical malpractice onboard a cruise ship, here is an overview of what you need to know:

What Constitutes Medical Malpractice Onboard a Cruise Ship?

Medical malpractice can take many different forms. However, not all mistakes in the medical setting rise to the level of actionable malpractice. In order for a medical mistake to constitute medical malpractice, it must represent a deviation from the appropriate “standard of care.”

While the appropriate standard of care can vary between medical settings (i.e., doctors may have more room for error in an ER as opposed to during scheduled office visits), doctors generally have a duty to prove the level of care that their colleagues would provide under similar circumstances. So, for example, if you received a misdiagnosis and the majority of doctors would have diagnosed your condition correctly, you may have a medical malpractice claim.

Taking this into account, some of the most common forms of medical malpractice on cruise ships include:

  • Diagnostic Errors –  Common diagnostic errors include both misdiagnosis and failure to diagnose. While failures to diagnose can leave cruise passengers without the treatment they need, misdiagnoses can result in passengers receiving unnecessary (and potentially dangerous) treatment for medical conditions they do not have.
  • Medication Errors – Medication errors can include administering the wrong medication, overdosing and underdosing. Additionally, prescribing medications that cause adverse reactions or that should not be taken with passengers’ other medications is also a common problem since cruise ship doctors typically won’t have access to passengers’ medical records.
  • Treatment Errors – Along with medication errors, other types of treatment errors are also common. These include improper wound treatment, failure to adequately immobilize and failure to prevent infections, among others.
  • Failure to Treat – Failure to treat is also a common form of medical malpractice onboard cruise ships. This typically results from one of two main factors—either (i) the ship is not equipped with the medical equipment or supplies needed to provide treatment for a particular illness or injury, or (ii) the ship’s doctor lacks knowledge about the appropriate treatment modality for a passenger’s condition.
  • Failure to Monitor – Failure to monitor is a common form of medical malpractice onboard cruise ships as well. Once a doctor provides treatment, the doctor must continue to monitor the patient’s condition as necessary to ensure that the patient remains on track for a full and timely recovery.

These are just examples. There are many other forms of medical malpractice, all of which can potentially occur on cruise ships. If you have any concerns about the medical care you or a loved one received while on a cruise, you should seek a second opinion and consult with a lawyer as soon as possible.

Are Cruise Lines Liable for Medical Malpractice Onboard?

Cruise lines can be held liable for medical malpractice onboard in most cases. There is one significant exception—when the doctor onboard is an independent contractor—which we discuss below. But, generally speaking, if you sought medical treatment onboard a ship operated by a major cruise line, the cruise line will most likely be liable for your doctor’s malpractice.

As a general rule, employers are liable for their employees’ negligence within the scope of their employment. In the case of a cruise ship doctor, this includes the doctor’s medical malpractice onboard. When determining whether a doctor is a cruise line’s employee for liability purposes, courts consider various factors, including:

  • Whether the cruise line posts advertisements about the availability of medical services onboard
  • Whether the cruise line directly hires and fires the ship’s medical staff
  • Whether the doctor is also an officer of the ship
  • Whether the cruise line is responsible for equipping and stocking the ship’s onboard medical facilities
  • Whether the cruise line bills passengers directly for medical services provided onboard

As a passenger, you don’t need to have all of this information. When you hire a lawyer, your lawyer will conduct an investigation, and if your lawyer has sued the cruise line in the past, he or she may already have much of the information needed. The key is to consult with an experienced lawyer as soon as possible—and to avoid letting the cruise line talk you out of seeking the help you need.

What If the Doctor is an Independent Contractor?

If the onboard doctor is not an employee of the cruise line, then he or she is most likely an independent contractor. This is more common on smaller cruise ships, where there is no onboard infirmary.

In cases involving ship doctors who are independent contractors, passengers who suffer negative outcomes due to medical malpractice have two potential options. Minimally, they should be able to file a claim against the doctor (who should have medical malpractice insurance). But, if the cruise line was negligent in selecting the doctor it placed onboard, then the cruise line could still be liable as well.

Find Out if You Have a Cruise Ship Medical Malpractice Claim

If you need to know more about pursuing a medical malpractice claim for care you or a loved one received onboard a cruise ship, we encourage you to contact us promptly for more information. For a free, no-obligation consultation, call 800-499-0551 or tell us how we can reach you online now.

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