Injuries to Seamen: Doctrine of Maintenance and Cure

Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia are all coastal cities, with bustling ports and numerous ships coming and going on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the high seas can be a dangerous place, with sailors suffering serious personal injuries. To make matters confusing, the ocean is not a place that typically falls within a country's borders. This raises the crucial problem of which state or country's laws apply to an injury that happens on the ocean. Many nations have come with the solution of agreeing to treaties and creating maritime laws that create rights that can be enforced in a court of law.

One important aspect of maritime law is the doctrine of maintenance and cure, which gives sailors onboard seagoing ships important rights against their captains and the shipping companies that own the boat they are on. Enforcing these rights guaranteed by the doctrine of maintenance and cure, however, often require an attorney who is fluent in the procedures and complexities of maritime law, like those at the Maryland law office of Gilman & Bedigian.

Scope and Sources of Maritime Law

Maritime law is the legal system that handles matters and disputes between private parties that happen in international waters, or that happen on land, but are maritime in nature. Common examples of situations that arise and are resolved under the rules of maritime law are:

  • Injuries that happen to sailors on a boat that is in international waters;
  • Missing or lost cargo from a boat that was transporting that cargo across the ocean;
  • Collisions between boats in international waters; and
  • Losses or injuries that happen because of piracy.

Importantly, maritime law does not cover disputes or legal issues between states or countries, like for the rights to underwater resources or for the right to navigate certain waterways. These are the realm of public international law.

Just because maritime law does not cover legal issues that involve countries or sovereign states, however, does not mean that international treaties do not have an impact on the reach of maritime law or the rights that it provides. Numerous treaties have been created through the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which was established by the United Nations in 1958 and became an effective advisory body in 1974. The IMO is the agency of the United Nations that regulates shipping in international waters, including safety measures, environmental impacts, and maritime security. Among the treaties that the IMO has crafted are the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, and the Maritime Pollution Regulations. Once drafted by the IMO, individual countries have the choice of voluntarily signing these treaties, becoming signatories that are bound by the terms of the treaty.

In addition to international treaties, though, each country has its own set of maritime laws that can have jurisdiction over certain legal issues that arise in international waters. In the United States, the U.S. Constitution gives federal courts the authority to handle legal problems in maritime law, allowing them to hear cases and issue legal opinions that create precedent and set rules that need to be followed in the future – the process of common law. In addition to these rules created by courts hearing maritime cases are a small handful of legislative maritime laws that were passed by the U.S. Congress. Prominent among these is the Jones Act, which regulates maritime commerce between U.S. ports and in U.S. waters, and which handles legal disputes between shipping companies and sailors, setting many seaman's rights on U.S. boats.

Many of these maritime laws – especially those created by individual countries that use the common law system of letting courts create legal rules to supplement laws passed by the legislature, like the United States – are based on incredibly old laws that date back to the very beginning of seafaring. The rules that early mariners and merchants created to regulate what happens on the open waters became standard protocol, passing rules down through the ages that were tweaked to suit future needs.

One of these maritime laws with ancient roots is the doctrine of maintenance and cure.

Doctrine of Maintenance and Cure

The doctrine of maintenance and cure is a legal concept that deals with the situation where a seaman gets hurt while in the service of a ship. The doctrine guarantees sailors and seamen two rights while onboard a ship in international waters:

  1. If hurt while in the service of the ship, the sailor has the right to receive free medical care from the shipowner, until the sailor has reached the maximum medical cure, and
  2. While the sailor is recovering from their injury, the shipowner has to maintain the sailor's needs by paying the wages they would have made to cover their basic living expenses until they are able to work, once again.

The doctrine of maintenance and cure come from one of the oldest sources of maritime law in the world, the Rules of Oleron. These Rules were the first laws governing maritime matters in Europe, and were created by Eleanor of Aquitaine around 1160 after her return from the crusades, where she likely learned of them in the Mediterranean. Article VI of the Rules of Oleron deals with injured sailors, and makes an important distinction: While sailors who were hurt while acting of their own accord are liable for their own injuries and actions, those who were hurt “by the master's orders and commands… in the service of the ship” are to be “cured and provided for at the costs and charges of the said ship.”

These Rules were adopted by subsequent European kings as the laws of the land, including King Henry VIII, and were thus passed down for generations. Common law courts in England used the Rules of Oleron in their maritime law decisions, and the United States Supreme Court adopted the rationale behind these English rulings as early as 1823 in the case Harden v. Gordon, and the Rules of Oleron themselves in the 1903 case The Osceola. Importantly to the U.S. Supreme Court in Harden, the doctrine of maintenance and cure embodied in the Rules of Oleron and the rules from court cases derived from it protects sailors and also “encourages seamen to engage in perilous voyages with more promptitude, and at lower wages,” as it lowered the risks they faced while onboard.

Maintenance and cure closely resemble state workers' compensation laws in that they provide a legal mechanism for injured workers to get the compensation they need for injuries that they have suffered while on the job. However, unlike workers' compensation laws, maintenance and cure is a federal law, so it does not vary depending on the state in which the incident occurred.

Rights Limited to Seamen

Importantly, only “seamen” have rights under the doctrine of maintenance and cure. Sailors or other people who are onboard a seagoing vessel can only benefit from the doctrine if they also fall under the legal heading of a “seaman.” According to federal appellate courts, “the standard for determining seaman status for purposes of maintenance and cure is the same as that established for determining status under the Jones Act.” Hall v. Diamond M Co.

According to the Supreme Court, “the key to seaman status is employment-related connection to a vessel in navigation.” McDermott International, Inc. v. Wilander. This “employment-related connection” requires two elements: The employee's duties need to both “contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission” and “be substantial in both its duration and nature.” Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis. While very fact-intensive, federal appellate courts have adopted a 30 percent guideline: A worker does not have seaman status for cure and maintenance purposes if they have spent less than 30 percent of their time aboard ship. Palmer v. Fayard Moving and Transportation Corp.

Cure and Maintenance Rights

If you are an eligible seaman and you get hurt or sick in the course of your work onboard a ship, your employer owes you cure and maintenance compensation, even if you contributed to your injury through some act of negligence of your own.

Cure covers the medical expenses that are reasonably necessary to bring you up to maximum medical improvement. While many of these aspects are similar to personal injury law, the notion of maximum medical improvement is not. The requirement that your employer cover your medical expenses up to maximum medical improvement does not necessarily mean that you are fully recovered. Instead, it only covers the costs of your cure up to the point where you are no longer expected to improve.

Maintenance, on the other hand, is meant to provide you with the costs of your basic needs, like food and lodging, that you would have been provided with while working on the vessel. These costs must be proved in court by the injured seaman. Only after presenting evidence of the cost of maintenance does the burden shift to the employer to contest those costs. Seamen who are a part of a union, however, often have the costs of maintenance dictated by collective bargaining agreements that have been settled beforehand. Maintenance, however, only lasts until the point at which you can return to work.

As a result, compensation for cure and maintenance are interrelated, but can exist independently after a period of time. For example, a seaman who gets hurt and who can eventually return to work, but continues to pay for the medical costs of a debilitating injury, can lose maintenance rights but can continue to receive cure payments.

Cure and Maintenance Rights After the Voyage

Once an injured seaman starts receiving payments for cure and maintenance, he or she is entitled to continue to receive it until they have reached the level of maximum medical improvement, regardless of whether this happens while they are still onboard, or not. For example, in the case Vaughan v. Atkinson, a shipman was discharged after a long voyage and then went to the hospital, where the records show a strong probability that he had developed tuberculosis. The ship that he had been on before the diagnosis refused to pay cure and maintenance damages, despite the fact that he was not found fit to return to work as a seaman for more than two years afterwards. In Vaughan, the Supreme Court stated that maintenance and cure “extends during the period when he is incapacitated to do a seaman's work and continues until he reaches maximum medical recovery.”

Attorney's Fees Available

Despite their legal obligations to provide payment for an injured seaman's on-the-job injuries through the doctrine of cure and maintenance, shipping businesses can still try avoiding the cost by making injured sailors actually assert their rights in court. Shipping companies know that not everyone is willing to make a formal claim for compensation, and that many sailors do not want to go through the time and expense necessary to go through the legal system to get the compensation that they need and deserve. Shipping companies rely on injured sailors to take whatever settlement offer they get, in order to move on with their lives without going to court. It had even become an established practice for ship owners to do nothing until an injured sailor initiated a lawsuit for cure and maintenance in a U.S. court.

In light of this, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that hurt seamen were entitled to attorney's fees for “willful and persistent” refusals to pay for the maintenance and cure expenses that they were entitled to. Vaughan v. Atkinson. This way, shipping businesses who dragged their feet despite their clear obligation to pay for cure and maintenance would also face the prospect of paying for the hurt sailor's attorneys, as well.

Punitive Damages Available

Because shipping is a for-profit business, it should come as no surprise that many shipping companies and ship owners do everything that they can to minimize the costs of their enterprise. This includes reducing the costs of their workforce in any way possible. Some companies go so far as to avoid paying injured seamen for the cure and maintenance that they are owed, even when it is egregiously obvious that they should be paying for the costs of their medical care and covering their living expenses while they recover.

This was what happened to one sailor, Edgar Townsend, when he was a crew member for a tugboat in California. While working, Townsend fell onto the steel deck of the boat and hurt his arm and shoulder. Despite their legal obligations under the doctrine of cure and maintenance, the owner of the tugboat told Townsend that he would not cover his medical or living expenses while he recovered. Townsend sued in federal court, claiming that he was entitled to punitive damages, and the issue made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

There, in the case Atlantic Sounding Co. Inc., v. Townsend, the Supreme Court decided that “willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation” opened up the possibility for punitive damages against the ship owner, allowing injured sailors whose rights have been egregiously violated to recover more than just what they need to be fully compensated: They can also receive damages that are meant to deter ship owners from violating their legal duties.

Where You Can Enforce Your Rights to Cure and Maintenance

Just like with other cases that do not involve maritime law, if you want to enforce your rights to cure and maintenance in the United States, you will have to go to court. Importantly, though, the United States Constitution, in Article III, Section 2, gives non-exclusive original jurisdiction in maritime law to the federal courts in the United States. This means most maritime law cases, including those involving cure and maintenance, begin in a U.S. federal court, like the district courts in the Eastern District of Philadelphia, the District of Maryland, or the District of Columbia.

However, because these courts do not have exclusive jurisdiction over maritime claims, these cases can also be initiated in state courts, as well. While there are exceptions to this rule – maritime cases that involve oceangoing property like boats, prize vessels, and treasure obtained through salvage can only be brought in federal court – legal disputes between sailors and their employers can be brought in either state or federal court.

When You Can Enforce Your Rights to Cure and Maintenance

Another crucial component of enforcing your rights to cure and maintenance for injuries you have suffered while onboard an oceangoing vessel is the statute of limitations. Like with other personal injury cases not covered within maritime law, victims are required to file their lawsuit within a certain period of time after getting hurt. This is meant to ensure that the lawsuit is initiated while evidence is still fresh and people are still around and can clearly remember what happened. It also allows the defendant to rest assured that they will not face a lawsuit once the statute of limitations has expired.

For cure and maintenance claims, this statute of limitations is typically three years. However, there are situations that might make the statute of limitations shorter or longer, making it crucial to see an attorney well before the three years has elapsed.

Alternatives to Cure and Maintenance Claims

Claims for cure and maintenance are not the only legal recourse that injured shipmen have against their bosses for their pain, suffering, and debilitation. Injured sailors can also claim negligence on the behalf of their employers through the doctrine of unseaworthiness, or can make a claim under the Jones Act, itself, which incorporates the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) and applies it to injuries suffered on the high seas. Finally, if a sailor gets hurt but is found to not be a “seaman” for the purposes of cure and maintenance, the Jones Act, or other compensation schemes, they can still get the recourse that they need and deserve through the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act.

Maryland Maritime Attorneys at Gilman & Bedigian

Getting the compensation for the injuries that you have suffered while in the service of your employer is something that should happen, all the time. After all, were it not for the orders of your boss, you would still be completely healthy. Additionally, the person who truly benefits from what you do while on the job is your employer.

For these reasons, the attorneys at the Maryland law office of Gilman & Bedigian work to represent those who have been hurt while out on the water in the course of their duties. You deserve the compensation that cure and maintenance offers, and we know how to fight for your interests to get you what you need. Contact us online or call our law office at (800) 529-6162.

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If someone you are close to has been seriously injured or worse, you are naturally devastated not only by what has happened, but by the effect that the injury or loss has had on you and your family. At a time when you're vulnerable, traumatized and emotionally exhausted, you need a team that will support you through the often complex process that lies ahead.

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