The maritime lawyers of Brais Law were successful in defeating a tug and barge company's attempt to dismiss an injured seaman's claim for punitive damages and attorney's fees for the willful delay of providing medical care. Maritime law requires a shipowner to provide a seaman injured within the course and scope of employment medical care until a qualified doctor declares the seaman at a point where medical care can no longer improve the condition. The Supreme Court recently in the case of Atlantic Sounding Co. Inc. v. Townsend found a shipowner can be liable for punitive damages if it willfully, arbitrarily or capriciously denies or delays in providing medical care to an injured seaman. Brais Law argued its client's case fell inside the perimeters of Townsend thereby allowing the pursuit of punitive damages as well as attorney's fees.
Brais Law's client worked for a tug boat and barge company as a deckhand and unlicensed engineer. On May 27, 2010, he suffered an injury while working on a tug boat performing duties in connection with a salvage operation ("First Incident"). This incident caused two cervical herniated discs. On June 1, 2010, the employers tendered a physician's assistant to care for the spinal injury. The physician's assistant gave the following orders: "No strenuous activities including line handling and heavy lifting." On June 4, 2010, the physician's assistant ordered an MRI and added the following additional orders: "No strenuous activities including line handling and heavy lifting, pulling or pushing." The seaman reported back to work that day.
On June 14, 2010, the physician's assistant referred the seaman to a neurosurgeon and provided following orders: "light duty restrictions." On July 23, 2010, approximately five weeks after the recommendation by the physician's assistant that the seaman consult a neurosurgeon. However, the appointment was cancelled because the seaman refused to sign documents waiving certain rights. The seaman was put back to work in defiance to the physician's assistant's restrictions and on July 17, 2010 he suffered a second injury while handling heavy lines and cables, which injured his cervical and/or lumbar spine ("Second Incident"). On or around July 23, 2010, a second neurologist was agreed upon by both parties as a mutually acceptable back specialist. On January 1, 2011, after seven months of unsuccessful conservative treatment, Plaintiff underwent a fusion of his back at the C5-C7 levels with instrumentality.
Brais Law filed a multi-count complaint on behalf of the injured seaman in federal court located in Orlando, Florida. Within the complaint was a punitive damages claim for the willful, arbitrary or capricious delay of recommended medical care. The seaman's employer filed a motion for summary judgment seeking to dismiss the punitive damages claim arguing that the mere delay in providing medical care does not rise to the level of for which punitive damages can be awarded.
The Court reasoned a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Defendant's failure to tender a neurosurgeon, i.e., provide maintenance and cure between the First Incident and the Second Incident, aggravated Plaintiff's condition. Accordingly, the Court found it could not determine as a matter of law that Defendant's actions and/or inactions were not callous and recalcitrant or arbitrary and capricious under the Supreme Court's Townsend decision and allowed the claim to survive.
This case is important to maritime law as it establishes when a shipowner fails to tender recommended medical care and that failure causes a second accident which aggravates an injury, a shipowner may be held liable for punitive damages. Click this link to read the Court's decision.