Eleventh Circuit decision holds US courts do not have to construe disputed medical evidence in maintenance and cure cases in favor of crewmembers
Under the general maritime law of the US, the employer of a Jones Act seaman who falls ill while in the service of the ship has a “no fault” obligation to provide maintenance, cure and unearned wages through the end of the voyage. It is the obligation of the seaman to establish entitlement to maintenance and cure. Before beginning benefit payments, the Jones Act employer is entitled to conduct a reasonable investigation into the seaman’s claim for benefits.
The case discussed below is an important decision for members to consider as it holds that that US courts do not have to construe disputed medical evidence in maintenance and cure cases in favor of seaman.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears federal appeals from Florida, Alabama and Georgia, held in a unanimous decision issued on 28 September 2021 that US courts do not have to construe disputed medical evidence in maintenance and cure cases in favor of seaman.
The case (Witbart v Mandara Spa Hawaii LLC) involved the appeal of a judgment from a district court in Florida. The lower court had ruled following a bench trial that while the plaintiff had a serious and debilitating medical condition that predated her employment that defendant had established that the plaintiff had intentionally misrepresented and concealed her pre-existing medical condition from the defendant before her initial and subsequent employment contracts.
The lower court had further held that this undisclosed medical condition was material to the defendant’s decision to hire the plaintiff and that there was a causal connection between the withheld medical condition and the medical condition plaintiff complained of in her lawsuit. The district court therefore concluded that the defendant had prevailed on its affirmative defense under McCorpen v. Central Gulf S.S. Corp., 396 F.2d 547 (5th Cir. 1968) and that plaintiff was not entitled to maintenance and cure.
The 11th Circuit hearing the case on appeal found no error in the lower court’s factual or legal rulings. The Court of Appeals also considered the crewmember’s argument that the district court had erred in not properly applying Vaughan v. Atkinson, 369 U.S. 527 (1962). The crewmember on appeal claimed that the US Supreme Court in Vaughan had required courts hearing maintenance cases to construe disputed medical evidence in the crewmember’s favor.
The 11th Circuit rejected this argument holding that Vaughan had only resolved an ambiguity in favor of a seaman regarding the amount of maintenance and cure owed by the shipowner and did not hold that all ambiguities were to be resolved in every crewmember’s favor holding that such a reading would strip the district courts of their ability to make credibility determinations when confronted with conflicting evidence during a bench trial.
As noted above this decision is important in cases involving disputed medical evidence in maintenance and cure claims.
The club would like to thank Mr. Charles G. De Leo of De Leo, Kuylenstierna & Little, for the summary of this decision.
Source: The Standard Club