Florida’s large tourism industry gives rise to interesting legal questions regarding personal jurisdiction over cruise line defendants who have been negligent. Personal jurisdiction refers to whether the court has power over the parties in a particular lawsuit. If a court does not have personal jurisdiction, its rulings and orders can’t be enforced upon that person or entity.
Can a defendant be held responsible in Florida courts if he or she simply works on a boat that departs from Florida? The answer to this question can impact ship doctors, as well as other ship personnel. A recent case illustrates the answer.
In the case, a couple took a seven-night cruise on a Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. She went to the ship’s doctor as the boat neared Haiti for treatment of serious abdominal pain. The ship’s nurse and doctor saw her. She was treated for gastritis, but she worsened. She got off the ship in Mexico and went to the hospital where she got an abdominal surgery. She was treated for sepsis and multiple organ failure. She also experienced a cerebral hemorrhage.
She filed a lawsuit against both the ship’s doctor and the cruise line. The complaint stated that the Florida circuit court had jurisdiction over the doctor who was a British citizen who didn’t own property in Florida and wasn’t licensed to practice in Florida. She didn’t allege medical treatment occurred in Florida or in its territorial waters.
The doctor moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, among other issues. The lower court denied the motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. However, it did not use the strict standard required by Florida’s long arm statute (a statute that outlines when personal jurisdiction may be found).
Rather, the court found that Florida had general jurisdiction over the doctor on the basis of § 48.193(2), Fla. Stat. (2011), which provides that a defendant who engages in substantial, but not isolated, activity within Florida is subject to Florida courts’ jurisdiction even if the claim doesn’t arise from that activity.
The lower court considered the following factors: The doctor had a nine-year career as a doctor on ships in Florida. He also attended medical conferences in Florida and made presentations there. He also vacationed in Florida and had two bank accounts there. It found jurisdiction on a relaxed standard.
The doctor appealed the lower court’s ruling that personal jurisdiction existed under a general jurisdiction theory. The appellate court explained that none of the factors were enough to confer jurisdiction. It explained that there is a requirement of continuous and systematic general business contacts in cases like these; contrary to the trial court’s ruling, general jurisdiction is harder to establish than specific jurisdiction.
The facts alleged and established here simply fall short of these mandates. The court pointed out that entering into an employment contract in Florida does not give the court general jurisdiction over somebody. Similarly attending conferences in Florida (or vacationing there) was insufficient. Nor was it enough to simply have a Florida bank account for convenience.
The appellate court reasoned that the doctor was a citizen of Great Britain who had never lived in, nor owned, real property, nor operated a business or his medical practice in Florida. His only real connection to Florida was that the foreign vessel on which he worked returned to a Florida home port once a week.
Usually, the ship’s medical center was closed when the ship had gone to port and opened again only after the ship had left port. He might have offered medical care in an emergency to someone in Florida territorial waters. However, emergency care was neither “continuous” nor “systematic.” The appellate court reasoned this did not satisfy the requirements of general jurisdiction under section 48.193(2) or due process requirements. The appellate court sent the case back to the lower courts to be dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction.
If you are seriously hurt or a loved one is killed due to a physician’s negligence, contact the knowledgeable Florida medical malpractice attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585. We can assess your case and determine the best theories of liability as well as the forum in which a case may be brought.
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