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Court: Ship’s Doctor Not Safe From Suit

August 20, 2003 GMT

MIAMI (AP) _ A cruise ship doctor cannot use his ship’s Liberian registry to shelter himself from a malpractice lawsuit in the death of a passenger’s newborn, a state appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal decided ships are subject to the laws in the ports they visit and revived the lawsuit against the doctor.

An attorney for Dr. Kenneth Holtz was served with the lawsuit on board Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas when the ship was docked in Miami. He argued Florida courts had no jurisdiction because of the ship’s foreign registry. Most cruise ships docking in U.S. ports are registered in foreign countries.

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``Dr. Holtz would have us impart the sovereignty of a foreign embassy to a foreign vessel docked in Miami,″ Judge Juan Ramirez wrote for the three-judge panel. ``We reject this argument.″

Gary Garbis, attorney for the parents Andras and Marianne Pota, said cruise companies have ``gone to great depths″ to try to avoid personal-injury lawsuits in the United States.

A similar question of whether U.S. courts have jurisdiction is before a federal judge in the deaths of eight Filipino sailors in a boiler explosion on the cruise ship Norway when it was docked in Miami in May. Norwegian Cruise Line is trying to force the families’ wrongful-death claims into arbitration in the Philippines, saying their employment contract calls for that action.

In the stillborn case, Royal Caribbean, which has its headquarters in Miami, accepted service of the lawsuit, but Holtz challenged it. By contract, the company is obligated to defend the doctor.

Allowing the doctor to avoid the lawsuit ``would have crippled the case,″ Garbis said. ``He would not have been required to be present, and we’d have to go chase him somewhere in Europe or wherever else he is.″

Royal Caribbean had no comment Wedneday. Calls to the doctor’s attorney were not immediately returned.

The stillborn case began on a different vessel, the Voyager of the Seas. While at sea on that ship, Holtz diagnosed Marianne Pota with a bladder infection and prescribed antibiotics after she complained of stomach cramps when she was 26 weeks pregnant.

The Hungarian woman went into labor that night, Royal Caribbean refused to airlift her to the nearest hospital in the Cayman Islands, and Holtz told her she could go ashore at their next stop on the Mexican island of Cozumel, the court said in summarizing the claims.

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She was taken to a clinic by ambulance, and her son Barnabas Pota died hours after birth.

The father sued Royal Caribbean and Holtz for wrongful death and malpractice in 2001. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Barbara Levenson dismissed the case based on the shipboard service of the lawsuit.