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Maintenance and Cure

Seamen injured in service of the vessel are entitled to maintenance, cure and unearned wages. This page is devoted to explaining the maritime benefits of maintenance and cure. For an in-depth explanation of a seaman’s entitlement to unearned wages, click here.

What is “Maintenance”?

“Maintenance” is a daily stipend intended to cover an injured seaman’s room and board expenses while recuperating from illness or injury. Any seaman injured in service of the vessel, is entitled to maintenance from the last day unearned wages are due until reaching maximum medical improvement. The seaman’s employer has a duty to promptly pay maintenance, and it is commonly paid by check approximately every two weeks.

What is “Cure”?

“Cure” is all reasonable and necessary medical treatment related to an injury or illness which manifested while in service of the vessel. Up to the point of maximum medical improvement, a seaman is entitled to all reasonable and necessary medical treatment—both curative and palliative. Seamen have the right to choose their medical providers and have no obligation to receive treatment from doctors selected by their employer. Generally a seaman’s health care providers bill the vessel owner directly for treatments falling under cure. Any out of pocket expenses incurred by the seaman (e.g. prescriptions) must be promptly reimbursed by the employer.

What is “Maximum Medical Improvement”?

Maximum medical improvement is the point at which a seaman’s condition is fixed and stable, and the seaman is no longer receiving curative medical treatment. Treatment is considered “curative” if there is a possibility that it will not only relieve symptoms, but improve the underlying condition. In contrast, palliative treatment is that which relieves symptoms of a condition, but does not actually improve the underlying condition (e.g. pain medication). Once a seaman reaches the point that there is no more curative treatment available, entitlement to maintenance and cure ends. A seaman’s doctor makes the determination of whether the seaman has reached maximum medical improvement.

History of Maintenance and Cure

The doctrine of maintenance and cure is a product of maritime common law and has been recognized in the United States since at least 1823 in the case of Harden v. Gordon, 11 F. Cas. 480, F. Cas. No. 6047 (C.C.D. Me. 1823). In Harden v. Gordon, the court described the reasons for the doctrine of maintenance and cure, noting that seamen, by the nature of their profession are particularly prone to illness and injury, and are often ill-equipped to handle the expense of such. The court reasoned that where the expense of maintenance and cure is the responsibility of the employer, the shipowner will be more likely to use the best methods to prevent illness and injury, and will not be “tempted to abandon the sick to their forlorn fate.”

What happens if my employer refuses to pay maintenance and cure?

If you believe you are entitled to maintenance and cure and your employer denies your claim, the first thing you should do is speak to an experienced maritime lawyer about your situation. The lawyers at Kraft Davies Olsson PLLC offer free consultations at 206.624.8844.

There are three additional remedies available to seamen who have been wrongfully denied maintenance and cure: attorney’s fees, compensatory damages, and punitive damages. In Brown v. Parker Drilling Offshore Corp., 410 F.3d 166 (5th Cir. 2005), the court described these remedies:

[T]here is an escalating scale of liability: a shipowner who is in fact liable for maintenance and cure, but who has been reasonable in denying liability, may be held liable only for the amount of maintenance and cure. If the shipowner has refused to pay without a reasonable defense, he becomes liable in addition for compensatory damages. If the owner not only lacks a reasonable defense but has exhibited callousness and indifference to the seaman's plight, he becomes liable for punitive damages and attorney's fees as well.

Id. at 177. Examples of conduct that support these additional awards include:

  • failing to conduct any investigation at all before denying a seaman's claim;
  • withholding payment despite discovering through investigation that payment was due;
  • rejecting a documented claim because the seaman did not consult with the owner before treatment and because the seaman filed suit; and
  • withholding payment on a pretextual basis.
What if I have a contract with my employer that sets a specific rate of maintenance?

A maintenance rate set by a union-negotiated collective bargaining agreement is enforceable. However, maintenance rates set by any other type of contract are generally unenforceable. If your employment contract provides a rate of maintenance that does not cover the full cost of your room and board (groceries, rent, utilities, etc.), then you are likely entitled to recover the difference from your employer.

How does maintenance and cure interact with other maritime remedies?

A seaman’s receipt of maintenance is not duplicative of any other type of recovery and generally does not reduce a seaman’s right to recovery under other theories of liability such as the Jones Act, unseaworthiness doctrine, and general maritime negligence. However, where a seaman’s employer has paid cure, the seaman is generally not entitled to recover medical expenses a second time under another theory of liability.

When should I contact a maritime injury lawyer regarding maintenance and cure?

Any time you are injured, it is a good idea to talk to a lawyer as soon as possible. You do not have to hire a lawyer right away, and you may not ever end up needing one, but speaking to a lawyer will provide you with valuable insight into how you can ensure that your rights to maintenance and cure are protected. If you have already been wrongfully denied maintenance and/or cure, a maritime injury lawyer is your best chance of successfully enforcing your rights. The lawyers at Kraft Davies Olsson PLLC are knowledgeable and experienced in the law of maintenance and cure. Call today to speak to a lawyer and for a free case evaluation at 206.624.8844.