Admiralty (maritime) law governs disputes involving seafaring vessels, whether used for marine commerce or carriage of passengers and goods. Many admiralty claims involve medical issues experienced by passengers or crew, and such claims can be broadly divided into two categories. The first concerns cruise ship passengers and the latter involves crew members on commercial vessels.
Cruise ship passengers, like all common carrier passengers, may suffer accidents, injuries, or acute medical and surgical conditions while traveling. When similar mishaps occur on land, the laws governing negligence are statutorily specified and the standards of care for medical treatment are similarly well-established. Disputes at sea are governed by admiralty law and adjudicated in the court of jurisdiction specified on the back of each passenger’s ticket, regardless of where the incident occurred. When a cruise ship passenger suffers an illness or injury, most modern cruise ships are staffed by skilled physicians and nurses who provide care compliant with accepted standards of Cruise Ship Medicine. Such standards parallel those on land, though differ based upon the practical reality of limited resources available at sea. For example, cruise ships do not have advanced diagnostic tests like CT scanners, and they lack access to specialists and surgical capabilities. That means that cruise ship physicians must understand shipboard resources and limitations while preparing to treat a diverse range of medical conditions that typically require complex care. To meet the rigors of treating patients at sea, many cruise lines staff their ships with physicians (typically Emergency Medicine doctors) who are experienced in Cruise Ship Medicine.
Crew members on commercial vessels, including cruise ships, are also subject to unique provisions of admiralty law. The Jones Act, part of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, allows seamen to seek redress from ship owners for unseaworthiness or negligence. The Jones Act provides for “Maintenance and Cure” which covers the room, board, and other expenses for an injured seaman while recovering at home (“maintenance”) as well all medical expenses (“cure”). Entitlement to maintenance and cure must continue to the point of maximum medical improvement (MMI) — the point at which further treatment would not yield objective benefits. Since crew members may suffer illnesses and injuries spanning every body system and part, the medical issues that fall under the Jones Act span nearly every medical field including Orthopedic Surgery, Neurology, Infectious Disease, Burn Surgery, and Internal Medicine.
Medical issues in cruise ship and Jones Act litigation are inherently complex and cover elements (e.g. “Maintenance and Cure”) that may be unfamiliar to most medical experts.