This question recently arose in the case of Williams v. Carnival Corporation. The case is pending in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami. Cruise ship attorneys at Greenberg, Stone, & Urbano have a combined 130 years of litigation experience and have encountered cases like the Williams case. Greenberg, Stone, & Urbano understand the maritime laws that apply to injuries suffered by passengers on cruise ships.
In the Williams case, a passenger suffered injuries after falling ill on board. The onboard physician treated the sickened passenger. He suffered "debilitating neurological damage" from medical treatment that fell below the standard of care a doctor owes a patient. Williams' neurological damage is permanent.
Williams and his wife filed a claim for damages in court. They alleged that the physician and the cruise line committed medical malpractice when they negligently treated Williams. Williams' wife filed a claim for loss of consortium. The cruise line asked the judge to dismiss the case because maritime law, which must be applied in this circumstance because the boat was at sea, does not allow for spouses to file a loss of consortium claim. The judge agreed with the cruise line and dismissed the count of the complaint alleging a loss of consortium.
In Florida, spouses can file claims for loss of consortium. A loss of consortium claim is "derivative" of the spouse's claim for damages based upon someone else's negligence. Loss of consortium allows a spouse of an injured person to collect money damages because the injury the spouse deprives them of the "affection, solace, comfort, companionship, society, assistance, and sexual relations necessary to a successful marriage. Florida law allows loss of consortium claims in medical malpractice lawsuits. Unfortunately for the Williams family, loss of consortium claims cannot be filed under general maritime laws.
Principals of maritime laws govern negligence actions when the ship is in navigable waters. Medical malpractice is a negligence action and therefore, maritime law applies. Maritime law is a matter of federal law, rather than state law. So, even though Florida law allows for loss of consortium claims in medical malpractice actions, Florida law does not apply even though the plaintiffs filed the case in a court located in Florida.
As far as the judge could see, this case was the first of its kind after the United States Supreme Court clarified a statute governing the types of damages for which an injured seaman could recover. The plaintiffs, in this case, attempted to use that recent decision to show that a loss of consortium claim is appropriate under the maritime law. The judge did not agree. The judge reasoned that the Supreme Court ruling did not expand every maritime law, just the law in question in the case. Therefore, the judge threw the loss of consortium claim out of court.
Maritime law does not prevent a spouse from recovering for other damages they suffered directly, as a result of the ship's negligence. In a recent decision in the same court, a magistrate judge denied a cruise ship's motion to dismiss the claims filed by the parents of a young woman who died on board a cruise ship after falling ill. The physicians on board misdiagnosed her illness, and she died as a result. The parents of the deceased filed a claim in court asking the court to impose damages against the ship for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The court permitted this claim to go forward because the parent's claims for emotional distress arose before their daughter died. Had those claims emerged after she died, the parents' exclusive remedy would be under the Death on the High Seas Act which does not allow damages for negligent infliction of emotion distress.
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