Maintenance And Cure: Factual Determination Required For Maximum Cure

Many jobs in the Seattle area involve working on the water. King County and Puget Sound are the regional hub for the fishing, shipping and towing industries. For those who work at sea an injury on a commercial fishing vessel, a tug or barge or cargo ship can make it impossible to continue working in the marine industry.

A ship owner has a duty to provide maintenance and cure if a seaman suffers an injury or becomes ill in service of the ship. State and federal courts have closely guarded the seaman's right to maintenance and cure.

Maintenance is an allowance to cover day-to-day living expenses, such as rent and food. The cure portion is to pay for the treatment of the injury or illness. The duty lasts until the worker reaches maximum cure. This could include a complete recovery from the illness or injury, or the point where additional treatment will not result in further improvement.

Often there are disagreements over the point when maximum cure is reached.

Deciding when maximum recovery occurs requires a review of the facts

A recent case addressed when a shipowner can terminate maintenance and cure payments. In the case, a fish processor suffered a neck injury while working in a confined space. He was six feet three inches tall yet the job required him to work 16- to 18-hour shifts in a room with a six-foot tall ceiling. He was forced to keep his neck bent the whole time.

After he finished the job, he sought treatment for neck pain. The company paid for his daily living and medical expenses. After some time, the employer had the seaman examined by an independent doctor, who found no neck symptoms tied to the work on board the vessel. The employer then stopped making payments.

The seaman asked the court to reinstate maintenance and cure. The employer brought a pre-trial motion, called a motion for summary judgment asking the court to dismiss the case. The court agreed that there were no factual disputes and as a matter of law dismissed the case.

On appeal, the Washington Supreme Court reversed the ruling. The shipowner needs to prove the worker has reached maximum cure. The court ruled that severity of the injuries as well as whether maximum cure had been reached are factual issues. This meant that dismissing the case at such an early stage was not appropriate.

A shipowner cannot stop making maintenance and cure payment on its own determination of maximum cure. The medical evidence that the seaman has reached maximum cure must be unequivocal to justify the termination of maintenance and cure. If injured while working at sea consult an experienced maritime attorney for advice on your available remedies.

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