On May 9, 2013, the Washington Supreme Court issued its opinion in Dean v. The Fishing Company of Alaska, Inc., No. 87407-7, where it unanimously held that upon a seaman’s motion to reinstate maintenance and cure, the trial court should order the shipowner to reinstate such payments unless the shipowner provides unequivocal evidence that the seaman has reached maximum cure.

Facts: Plaintiff worked aboard a fishing vessel owned by defendant. Soon after leaving the vessel in June 2006, plaintiff sought medical treatment for pain in his neck, wrists, and hands. To treat his neck pain, plaintiff was prescribed over-the-counter medication, and later physical therapy and light massage. Plaintiff’s hand pain was diagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome. He had carpal tunnel release surgery in 2008 and 2009.

Defendant started paying maintenance and cure to the plaintiff soon after he left the vessel. In August 2009, defendant hired a physician to examine plaintiff’s neck. He found that it was normal and that any injury that occurred on the vessel would have been resolved within several months. Shortly after that examination defendant stopped paying maintenance and cure. In October 2009, plaintiff’s treating physician opined that plaintiff could benefit from additional treatment for both his hand and neck injuries.

Lawsuit: Plaintiff filed suit in King County Superior Court for damages under the Jones Act and for maintenance and cure under general maritime law. Plaintiff filed a pre-trial motion to reinstate maintenance and cure requesting that the court order defendant to resume making payments because plaintiff had not reached maximum cure. The trial court applied a summary judgment standard to the motion and thus viewed the facts in the light most favorable to defendant, the nonmoving party. The trial court found that there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether plaintiff’s injuries had reached maximum cure and thus that plaintiff was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Accordingly, the court did not order defendant to resume paying maintenance and cure.

Plaintiff appealed. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s application of the summary judgment standard to plaintiff’s motion to reinstate maintenance and cure. It noted that instead of bringing that motion, plaintiff could have sought a preliminary injunction under Civil Rule 65(a) or moved for an expedited trial under Civil Rule 42(b).

Supreme Court Decision: The Washington Supreme Court reversed. It noted that after a seaman proves his initial entitlement to maintenance and cure, the burden shifts to the shipowner to prove maximum cure has been reached. The court recognized that a seaman’s initial entitlement to maintenance and cure can be resolved on summary judgment but explained that this standard was proper because a seaman’s initial entitlement to maintenance and cure is a legal question. The court held that the extent of a seaman’s injuries and whether a seaman has reached maximum cure are factual, rather than legal questions, and thus cannot properly be resolved on summary judgment. Accordingly, the court held that a summary judgment standard should not be applied to a seaman’s motion for reinstatement of maintenance and cure and, instead, if a shipowner stops paying maintenance and cure to a seaman based on its determination that the seaman reached maximum cure, the trial court should order the shipowner to reinstate such payments unless the shipowner provides unequivocal evidence that the seaman has reached maximum cure.

Takeaway: This case represents yet another decision from Washington State courts affirming that the time-honored doctrine of maintenance and cure will be liberally interpreted and broadly applied in favor of seamen, and to the detriment of shipowners, in this state. For all practical purposes, regardless of contrary evidence, if the seaman’s treating doctor says that he would benefit from further treatment, it will be impossible to terminate maintenance and cure without a trial on the issue. Even at trial, the applicable standards overwhelmingly favor the seaman. Care should be taken to ensure that in any settlement reached with the seaman, the agreement clearly releases the seaman’s claim for maintenance and cure – past, present and future.

Keesal, Young & Logan Maritime Law Group

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