Summary of Decision: In a recently published decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that a shipowner is liable for the payment of maintenance and cure benefits to a seaman who had an undiagnosed medical condition while working aboard a vessel even though he did not have any symptoms during that service. Messier v. Bouchard Transportation, (2d Cir., Case No. 10-5181-cv, July 20, 2012).
Background: Plaintiff was hired by Defendant in 2004 and in September 2005 was assigned to work aboard Defendant’s tugboat. While in service, Plaintiff fell and suffered a back injury for which he sought medical care. Although Plaintiff’s back pain quickly subsided, the resulting medical examinations revealed the existence of a more serious condition. In December 2005, two months after his service on Defendant’s tugboat ended, Plaintiff was diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma, a type of cancer of the blood. Plaintiff underwent treatment and did not return to work until October 2006. In November 2008, Plaintiff brought a claim against Defendant for maintenance and cure.
Plaintiff’s doctor testified that Plaintiff’s lymphoma had “existed for at least several months prior to [the doctor’s] January 13, 2006 report, which would include September/ October 2005,” when Plaintiff was serving aboard Defendant’s tug. Defendant argued that the doctor’s testimony was unreliable, but did not present any contrary evidence. Accordingly, the Court held that the fact that Plaintiff had lymphoma during his service on Defendant’s tug was undisputed.
Court’s Analysis: The Second Circuit noted that courts are to be “liberal in interpreting th[e] duty [of maintenance and cure] for the benefit and protection of seamen.” Applying this principle, the Court held that a seaman is entitled to maintenance and cure as long as his illness existed during the seaman’s service aboard his vessel regardless of whether the seaman suffered symptoms during such service. The Court rejected the argument that the seaman’s illness or injury must manifest itself during the period of the seaman’s service aboard the vessel. The Court labeled its approach the “occurrence rule.”
Although the Court observed that the issue before it was novel, it purported to base its holding on prior Supreme Court cases which held that a seaman is entitled to maintenance and cure when he “becomes ill” or “becomes sick” while in the service of the ship. But the Supreme Court cases cited by the Second Circuit did not address an asymptomatic illness that was only discovered after the seaman had left the vessel. Thus, the Supreme Court has not addressed whether a shipowner must pay maintenance and cure for an illness that was asymptomatic when the seaman served on a vessel, but later manifested itself after his employment had ended.
Takeaway: The Second Circuit’s “occurrence rule” represents a departure from the traditional rule that shipowners owe maintenance and cure only for illnesses that “manifest” while the seaman is in the service of the vessel. The traditional rule is straightforward, and for the most part easy to follow. The Second Circuit’s rule would be far more difficult to apply in cases involving diseases which develop slowly over a period of months or years, such as some forms of cancer and systemic disorders. In some cases, medical knowledge may not be advanced enough to say with any degree of medical certainty when a slowly developing condition first existed in an asymptomatic form under the “occurrence rule.” Because ambiguities and doubts regarding a seaman’s entitlement to maintenance and cure are resolved in favor of the seaman, doubts as to whether a condition existed while a seaman was in the service of a vessel will likely have to be resolved in the seaman’s favor. Consequently, shipowners can expect to receive more demands for maintenance and cure from seamen who left their ship without ever reporting any symptoms of illness or injury.
Whether other courts outside the Second Circuit will follow this decision remains to be seen. The ruling is limited as binding precedent to federal courts in the Second Circuit (New York, Connecticut and Vermont). However, plaintiffs will cite this case as persuasive authority throughout the rest of the country. The shipowner in this case may still seek en banc review of the decision before the entire Second Circuit, or seek review by the United States Supreme Court.
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