A landmark case from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Louisiana finds maritime companies are not entitled to repayment of maintenance and cure wrongly provided to injured seaman even if the crewmember lied on his employment application. Maintenance is a living stipend that employers must pay seamen injured while in service and subject to the call of the ship up until the time the medical condition plateaus. Cure is medical treatment for the injury.
A favorite tactic of maritime employers and ship owners when faced with a seaman’s lawsuit is to file a counterclaim seeking to recoup wrongly paid maintenance and cure benefits. Often times the defending company will scour the employment application and pre-employment medical disclosure forms then compare these statements with the injured seaman’s medical records for anything that may, in its view, be inconsistent. The company will then file a counterclaim seeking reimbursement based upon such inconsistency. This is ploy simply designed to scare the crew member into accepting a lower settlement than the true value of the case.
The Fifth Circuit in Boudreaux v. Transocean Deepwater, Inc. has put an end to this practice. Boudreaux concerned a seaman who filed a lawsuit alleging he injured his back while servicing equipment. Prior to his employment with Transocean he filled out a pre-employment medical questionnaire wherein he failed to disclose significant preexisting back problems and affirmatively wrote “no” to questions regarding prior back issues. After his on the job injury, Transocean started paying maintenance and cure. While the litigation was proceeding, Boudreaux’s previous back issues were discovered. Transocean stopped paying maintenance and cure and filed a counterclaim seeking recovery of all previously paid maintenance and cure.
The legal arguments presented to the court were maritime employers should not be caused to suffer payment of maintenance and cure to a seaman who intentionally misrepresented himself to get a job. After all, if the crew member was truthful, he would not have been hired and never had the accident. The counter-argument was requiring a seaman to pay back money to a company would conflict with maritime law’s protection of seaman as it would stand as a serious impediment to a seaman’s economic recovery and would have a negative impact on settlement negotiations.
The court agreed with the seaman’s argument finding maritime employers ability to recoup paid maintenance and cure has no support in maritime law even though the seaman obtained those befits through dishonest means. Rewarding a seamen who are not truthful may seem like a harsh decision. The court, however, points out maritime employers need not immediately provide maintenance and cure to injured seamen. They have the right to conduct an investigation into the accident and medical condition before deciding to pay the benefits. If Transocean was diligent in investigating the claim, it would have found out that Boudreaux concealed his preexisting back injury which would have supported the denial of benefits.
If you were hurt while working aboard a ship and would like to know more about your legal rights, feel free to contact our attorneys for a free consultation. The BBR Florida Board Certified Maritime Lawyers are well versed in issues of maintenance and cure and have successfully litigated the very topic presented in Baudreaux before various trial courts.