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Washington State Supreme Court Held Courts Must Grant A Seaman’s Motion To Reinstate Maintenance And Cure Unless The Shipowner Can Provide Unequivocal Evidence That The Seaman Has Reached Maximum Cure

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled en banc yesterday in Dean v. The Fishing Company of Alaska, Inc., a case involving wrongful termination of a seaman’s right to maintenance and cure.  The court ruled that where a seaman’s maintenance and cure have been cut off by the vessel owner, the seaman is entitled to have these benefits reinstated pending trial unless the vessel owner can provide unequivocal evidence that the seaman has reached maximum cure.

Facts Of The Dean Case:

Ian Dean worked aboard a fishing vessel owned by The Fishing Company of Alaska (FCA).  Dean, standing 6 feet 3 inches tall, was assigned to work in an area with a low overhead and thus had to work stooped over.  While aboard the vessel, Dean developed pain in his neck and hands.  When he left the vessel, he sought medical treatment and FCA began paying maintenance and cure, as required by general maritime law (for more information on a seaman’s right to maintenance and cure, click here).  After paying Dean’s maintenance and cure for just over three years, FCA stopped paying when it obtained the opinion of a physician that Dean’s injuries had reached maximum cure.  At the time when FCA cut off Dean’s maintenance and cure, Dean’s own physician opined that Dean’s injuries could benefit from additional treatment.

Procedural History:

When FCA cut off maintenance and cure benefits Dean sued FCA in King County Superior Court and filed a motion asking the trial court to order FCA to resume paying maintenance and cure.  The trial court denied Dean’s motion, applying the summary judgment standard.  Under the summary judgment standard, the court must view all evidence in light of the non-moving party.  In the Dean case, this meant that the court construed all ambiguities in FCA’s favor when determining whether FCA was required to pay maintenance and cure pending trial.  The Court of Appleals affirmed, and the Supreme Court reversed.

The Supreme Court Decision:

The Court described the history of the doctrine of maintenance and cure, and the policy of interpreting the vessel owner’s duty broadly “for the benefit and protection of seamen.”  The Court cited Vaughan v. Atkinson, 369 U.S. 527, 531-31, 82 S. Ct. 997, 8 L. Ed. 2d 88 (1962), for the well established principle that “[w]hen there are ambiguities or doubts [related to maintenance and cure], they are resolved in favor of the seaman.”  The court characterized the issue presented in Dean as:

“How should a trial court treat a seaman’s pretrial motion to reinstate maintenance and cure after the shipowner—who initially paid maintenance and cure—cuts off payments?”

In discussing the issue, the court noted that “a shipowner’s duty to pay maintenance and cure is ‘virtually automatic,’” “[t]he seaman’s burden is ‘relatively light,’” and “[a]fter a seaman has proved his initial entitlement to maintenance and cure, the burden shifts to the shipowner to prove that maximum cure has been reached.”

The court held that if a seaman files a motion to reinstate maintenance and cure, the shipowner bears the burden of establishing that it had a legitimate reason for cutting off benefits in the first place.  The shipowner can meet this burden by proving “unequivocal” evidence that the seaman reached maximum cure.

However, in dicta the court approved use of the summary judgment standard to determine a seaman’s initial entitlement to maintenance and cure.  This part of the Court’s decision seems to conflict with key principles of maritime law, particularly the rule that all ambiguities and doubts are to be resolved in favor of the seaman, and that maintenance and cure benefits should be virtually automatic.  Furthermore, a rule under which a shipowner must have “unequivocal” evidence in order to cut off maintenance payments, but does not need such evidence in order to refuse to pay maintenance and cure in the first place, creates an incentive for shipowners to refuse initial payment of maintenance and cure.

What This Means For Seamen:

Overall, the Court’s decision establishes a clear rule to protect the rights of seamen who are already receiving maintenance and cure.  The Court’s pronouncement in dicta that the summary judgment standard applies to a seaman’s initial entitlement to maintenance and cure may present challenges to seaman securing initial payment.  However, the threat of punitive damages, attorney’s fees, and compensatory damages under Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, will likely deter most shipowners from wrongfully refusing initial payment of maintenance and cure.