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Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Orders Washington State Ferries to Pay Back Maintenance to Ferry Worker

901265_approaching_seattle_on_the_ferryOn March 1, 2016, a Snohomish County Superior Court Judge found that the ferry system had wrongfully denied payment of maintenance and ordered the Washington State Ferry system to pay 275 days of back maintenance to an injured ferry worker represented by Kraft Davies, P.L.L.C.  In holding in favor of the injured worker, the Court ordered the ferry system to pay back benefits of $19,175 and costs of $1,323. The ferry system had argued that it was still investigating the claim and that it needed the results of diagnostic testing and physical therapy so that it could complete its investigation. In reaching its decision, the Court rejected the ferry system’s claims and stated: “The Court finds that there has been no good cause for the State’s failure to pay maintenance, that the State’s claim that the results of diagnostic testing and physical therapy are necessary to allow it to complete its investigation of Kelly’s claim for maintenance is pretextual, and the State’s denial of maintenance despite its payment of the coextensive duty of cure is arbitrary and capricious.” The Court directed our client to submit an application for an award of attorneys’ fees against the ferry system for its wrongful failure to pay maintenance to the injured ferry worker. The application for attorneys’ fees must be filed within 14 days. The ferry system will also face the issue of punitive damages at trial for wrongful failure to pay maintenance.

Maintenance is a daily stipend owed to a seaman recovering from an illness or injury while in the service of the vessel and is owed until the seaman reaches maximum medical improvement from the condition. “The rule of maintenance and cure is simple and broad: a seaman is entitled to maintenance and cure for any injury or illness that occurs or becomes aggravated while he is serving the ship.” Messier v. Bouchard Transp., 688 F.3d 78, 83-84 (2d Cir. 2012) (emphasis in original). In Dean v. Fishing Co. of Alaska, Inc., 177 Wn.2d 399 (2013), a unanimous Washington Supreme Court summarized the law of maintenance and cure:

Under general maritime law, a shipowner has a duty to provide maintenance and cure to a seaman who “becomes ill or is injured while in the service of the ship.”   Vella v. Ford Motor Co., 421 U.S. 1, 3, 95 S. Ct. 1381, 43 L. Ed. 2d 682 (1975); Clausen v. Icicle Seafoods, Inc., 174 Wn.2d 70, 76, 272 P.3d 827 (2012). “Maintenance” is a per diem living allowance for food and lodging comparable to what the seaman is entitled to while at sea; “cure” is payment of medical expenses incurred in treating the seaman’s injury or illness. Calmar S.S. Corp. v. Taylor, 303 U.S. 525, 528, 58 S. Ct. 651, 82 L. Ed. 993 (1938); Clausen, 174 Wn.2d at 76. The shipowner’s duty to pay maintenance and cure “continues until the seaman . . . reaches the point of maximum medical recovery.” 1 Thomas J. Schoenbaum, Admiralty and Maritime Law § 6-28, at 393 (4th ed. 2004) (citing Farrell v. United States, 336 U.S. 511, 522-23, 69 S. Ct. 707, 93 L. Ed. 850 (1949)). “‘Maximum medical cure’ is reached when the seaman recovers from the injury, the condition permanently stabilizes or cannot be improved further.” McMillan v. Tug Jane A. Bouchard, 885 F. Supp. 452, 459 (E.D.N.Y. 1995). . .

[The United States Supreme Court] emphasized that a shipowner’s duty to pay maintenance and cure is “‘broad,’” Vella, 421 U.S. at 4 (quoting Aguilar v. Standard Oil Co. of N.J., 318 U.S. 724, 730, 63 S. Ct. 930, 87 L. Ed. 1107 (1943)), and should be liberally interpreted “‘for the benefit and protection of seamen who are [the admiralty courts’] wards,’” Vaughan v. Atkinson, 369 U.S. 527, 531-32, 82 S. Ct. 997, 8 L. Ed. 2d 88 (1962) (quoting Taylor, 303 U.S. at 529). . .

A shipowner’s duty to pay maintenance and cure is so broad that it arises regardless of the shipowner’s fault or negligence or the seaman’s contributory fault. Aguilar, 318 U.S. at 730-31. There are very few defenses a shipowner can raise to avoid paying maintenance and cure.

177 Wn.2d at 405-408. “The duty, which arises from the contract of employment, does not rest upon negligence or culpability on the part of the owner or master, nor is it restricted to those cases where the seaman’s employment is the cause of the injury or illness.” Calmar S.S. Corp. v. Taylor, 303 U.S. 525, 527-528, 58 S. Ct. 651, 82 L. Ed. 993 (1938) (internal citations omitted); Siders v. Ohio River Company, 351 F. Supp. 987, 992 (W.D. Pa. 1970) (payment of maintenance and cure is an “obligation on the part of the shipowner [which] is deep-rooted in maritime law and is an implied term of the contract for maritime employment.”) (citing McCorpen v. Central Gulf Steamship Corporation, 396 F.2d 547 (5th Cir. 1968)).

“The employer has the affirmative duty to promptly investigate any claim for maintenance, cure and unearned wages and, resolving doubts as to entitlement in the favor of the seaman, promptly pay amounts due.” Am. Seafoods Co. v. Nowak, 2002 AMC 1655 (W.D. Wash. 2002) (citing Moore v. The Sally J., 27 F. Supp.2d 1255, 1262 (W.D. Wa. 1998)). Although a vessel owner is permitted to investigate claims prior to extending benefits, the investigation is not a permissible basis for delaying benefits after initiating payment. Guevara v. Maritime Overseas Corp., 34 F.3d 1279, 1283 (5th Cir. 1994). “Payments must be promptly made, at a time contemporaneous to the illness or injury.” Crooks v. United States, 459 F.2d 631, 635 (9th Cir. 1972); see also, Black v. Red Star Towing & Transp. Co., 860 F.2d 30, 33, 1989 AMC 1 (2d Cir. 1988) (“maritime law policy . . . calls for prompt and voluntary payment of maintenance and cure”). “It is well established that maintenance is an inviolable obligation that the employer owes to an injured seaman and a duty that cannot be abrogated.” Foss Mar. Co. v. Easly, 544 Fed. Appx. 706, 707 (9th Cir. 2013) (citing, Cortes v. Balt. Insular Line, Inc., 287 U.S. 367, 371, 53 S. Ct. 173, 77 L. Ed. 368 (1932)).

The law of seamen has evolved to confer a strong bias in favor of an injured seaman with respect to maintenance and cure claims. A shipowner’s duty to pay maintenance and cure is “virtually automatic.” Dean v. Fishing Company of Alaska, supra at 409 (citing Baucom v. Sisco Stevedoring, LLC, 506 F. Supp. 2d 1064, 1073 (S.D. Ala. 2007)); see also, Vella v. Ford Motor Co., 421 U.S. 1, 4, 95 S. Ct. 1381, 43 L. Ed. 2d 682, 1975 AMC 563 (1975) (Maintenance and cure serve to provide seamen “essential certainty of protection against the ravages of illness and injury.”). In Vaughan v. Atkinson, 369 U.S. 527 (1962), a leading case regarding maintenance and cure, the United States Supreme Court explicitly held that all ambiguities with respect to entitlement must be resolved in the seaman’s favor:

[T]he shipowner’s liability for maintenance and cure [is] among ‘the most pervasive’ of all and [it is] not to be defeated by restrictive distinctions nor ‘narrowly confined.’ When there are ambiguities or doubts, they are resolved in favor of the seaman.

369 U.S. at 532 (internal citations omitted, emphasis supplied). Similarly:

It has been the merit of the seaman’s right to maintenance and cure that it is so inclusive as to be relatively simple, and can be understood and administered without technical considerations. It has few exceptions or conditions to stir contentions, cause delays, and invite litigations.

Farrell v. United States, 336 U.S. 511, 516, 69 S. Ct. 707, 93 L. Ed. 850 (1949). The Washington Supreme Court has held that “[i]n order to ensure that injured seamen were protected, the Vaughan Court instructed that when there are ambiguities or doubts related to maintenance and cure, they are resolved in favor of the seaman.” Dean, 177 Wn.2d at 408 (internal quotations omitted).

Maintenance and cure are described as “among the most pervasive incidents of the responsibility anciently imposed upon shipowners” and should not be overcome “by restrictive and artificial distinctions . . . . If leeway is to be given in either direction, all the considerations which brought the liability into being dictate it should be in the sailor’s behalf.” Aguilar, 318 U.S. at 730-735; see also Messier, 688 F.3d at 83 (“No matter how the doctrine is formulated, one thing is clear—the duty of maintenance and cure exists for the benefit of seamen. Accordingly, the Supreme Court instructs us to be ‘liberal in interpreting this duty for the benefit and protection of seamen who are [the admiralty courts’] wards.’”) (quoting Vaughan, 369 U.S. at 531-32).

If you have questions about your maintenance and cure benefits, contact one of our maritime injury lawyers for a free consultation on the issue.