No doubt that companies are worried following the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal's decision declining to apply what's referred to as the Barbetta rule. This rule has been used to shield ship owners from liability over acts by the ship's medical staff.

Briefly, in Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., a passenger aboard a cruise ship suffered a head injury and died, allegedly because of negligent shipboard medical treatment. When the deceased passenger's daughter brought suit against the cruise line, the trial court applied the Barbetta rule and dismissed the lawsuit. The cruise line, the trial court reasoned, was immune from the acts of its medical staff. The 11th Circuit Court reinstated the lawsuit explaining, among other things, that a century's worth of maritime precedent requires maritime principals to answer for the negligence of their onboard agents. Thus, the court proposed analyzing these types of cases along strict agency principles. That is, whether a principal (in this case the shipowner) is responsible for the acts of its agents (here, the medical staff) depends on the principal's control over its agents. Bye-bye Barbetta rule. 

This decision results in conflict among the circuit courts of appeal, which means the Supreme Court might ultimately take up the issue. However, I don't think so. The 11th Circuit's ruling is too neatly explained not to serve as a powerful tool of persuasion for courts wrestling with such claims in the future.

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