Maintenance and Cure: It’s the nearly inalienable benefit that seamen receive when they are injured or become ill while in the service of the ship. A seaman is entitled to this daily living allowance and payment of medical treatment irrespective of fault; and a shipowner/employer’s defenses to a maintenance and cure demand are quite limited. Generally, these benefits are not owed if the injury or illness results from intentional misconduct or intoxication by the seaman. The legal obligation to provide maintenance and cure can also be excused if it is shown that the seaman had willfully misrepresented a pre-existing physical or medical condition when he applied for his job and that his subsequent injury or illness is causally related to that pre-existing condition.
Until recently, Jones Act employers sometimes took legal action against seamen to recover back maintenance and cure payments made before discovering that the seamen had misrepresented his medical history or preexisting physical condition. In July, however, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an important ruling striking down the employer’s right to recover back maintenance and cure payments.
In the case of Boudreaux v. Transocean Deepwater, Inc., the Fifth Circuit reversed a district court’s ruling that allowed Transocean to sue its employee to recover back maintenance and cure benefits which Transocean did not believe were owed because the employee concealed a pre-existing back condition – which was found to be related to his claimed on-the-job injury – when he initially applied for his job. In denying the Jones Act employer the right to pursue recovery of maintenance and cure benefits that were thus wrongfully paid, the Fifth Circuit was heavily influenced by the near-absolute remedies afforded to seamen by virtue of their employment relationship with the employer which include entitlement to a daily living allowance and medical treatment for work related injuries. The court was unwilling to grant the employer the heavy handed remedy of exposing the seaman to repay benefits that he received but to which he might not have been entitled. Consequently, Transocean was found not to have a “right of action” to recoup maintenance and cure paid to the dishonest seaman.
Jones Act employers can still deny maintenance and cure to a seaman who has willfully concealed his medical history, when that misrepresentation is related to the decision to hire the seaman and his subsequent claimed injury. But in the event of an inadvertent payment of benefits later determined not to have been owed, the employer’s rights to recover those benefits back are extremely limited.