Can a Seaman Get Maintenance and Cure for a Cancer Diagnosis?

Unlike shore-side workers’ compensation schemes, a seaman may be entitled to recover maintenance and cure for a cancer diagnosis as long as the symptoms of the cancer manifest or were aggravated while in the service of the vessel. Courts have long recognized that: “ . . the 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.” Vaughan v. Atkinson, 369 U.S. 527, 532, 82 S. Ct. 997, 8 L. Ed. 2d 88 (1962) (citations omitted, emphasis supplied); accord, Aguilar v. Standard Oil Co., 318 U.S. 724, 730, 735, 63 S. Ct. 930, 87 L. Ed. 1107 (1943). The U.S. Supreme Court explained:

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, L. Ed. 850 (1949). In Messier v. Bouchard Transp., the court described the doctrine:

Maintenance and cure has been called a kind of nonstatutory workmen’s compensation. The analogy to workers’ compensation, however, can be misleading, because maintenance and cure is a far more expansive remedy. First, although it is limited to the seaman who becomes ill or is injured while in the service of the ship, it is not restricted to those cases where the seaman’s employment is the cause of the injury or illness. The obligation can arise out of a medical condition such as a heart problem, a prior illness that recurs during the seaman’s employment, or an injury suffered on shore. Second, the doctrine is so broad that negligence or acts short of culpable misconduct on the seaman’s part will not relieve the shipowner of the responsibility. Third, the doctrine may apply even if a seaman is injured or falls ill off-duty—for example, while on shore leave, so long as the seamen is in the service of the ship, which means he is generally answerable to its call to duty rather than actually in performance of routine tasks or specific orders. Fourth, a seaman may be entitled to maintenance and cure even for a preexisting medical condition that recurs or becomes aggravated during his service.

Messier v. Bouchard Transp., 688 F.3d 78, 82 (2d Cir. 2012) (citations and quotations omitted).

“The policy underlying a broad maintenance and cure doctrine is ‘the almost paternalistic duty’ admiralty law imposes on a shipowner toward the crew.” Messier v. Bouchard Transp., 688 F.3d 78, 82, 2012 AMC 2370 (2d Cir. 2012). “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.’” Id. at 83 (quoting Vaughan, 369 U.S. at 531-32).

In service of the vessel.

A seaman is “in service of the vessel” any time the seaman is generally answerable to the call of duty. LeBlanc v. B.G.T. Corp., 992 F.2d 394, 398 (1st Cir. 1993), citing, Farrell, 336 U.S. at 516. The term “in service of the vessel” is broadly construed for the benefit of seamen. Lawler v. Matson Nav. Co., 108 F. Supp. 946, 947 (D. Cal. 1952).

The Occurrence Rule.

In Messier v. Bouchard Transp., the court stated the general rule: “a seaman is entitled to maintenance and cure for any injury or illness that occurs, becomes aggravated, or manifests itself while the seaman is in the service of the ship.” Supra, at 84 (emphasis added, internal quotations omitted). The Messier court referred to this as the “occurrence rule,” reasoning that any condition which manifests or is aggravated while in service of the vessel would also be deemed to have “occurred” while in service of the vessel.

It is well established that where a seaman first notices symptoms of a condition while in service of the vessel, the seaman is entitled to maintenance and cure for the condition. Calmar S.S. Corp. v. Taylor, 303 U.S. 525, 527, 58 S.Ct. 651, 82 L.Ed. 993 (1938); see also The Bouker No. 2, 241 F. 831, 833 (2d Cir. N.Y. 1917) (“[A] seaman ‘falls sick, or is wounded, in the service of the ship,’ if such misfortune attacks him while he is attached to the ship as part of her crew. It is not necessary that the wound or illness should be directly caused by some proven act of labor; it is enough that he was, when incapacitated, subject to the call of duty as a seaman, and earning wages as such.”).

Vessel owners must pay maintenance and cure for (a) any condition which first presents symptoms in service of the vessel, (b) any condition which is flared up or reoccurs in service of the vessel, and (c) any other condition which existed in service of the vessel, whether or not symptoms were present during the seaman’s service. Messier, supra.

In Messier, the seaman worked two three-week “hitches” between September and October, 2005. At the end of his second “hitch”, he suffered a minor injury, but the resulting medical tests revealed that the seaman suffered from lymphoma. It was undisputed that Messier did not experience symptoms of lymphoma aboard the vessel, but the disease had to have already existed while Messier was aboard the vessel. Granting summary judgment in favor of a seaman, the Second Circuit explained: “The first presentation of symptoms, however, is not the touchstone for maintenance and cure. If a seaman’s injury or illness occurs during his service, he is entitled to maintenance and cure regardless of when he starts to show symptoms.”

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