Supreme Court of Texas Overturns $2.5 Million Compensatory Damages Award for Failure to Pay Maintenance and Cure

On June 22, 2012, the Supreme Court of Texas handed down its decision in Weeks Marine, Inc. v. Garza, 2012 WL 2361721 (Tex. 2012).  The suit involved personal injury to Maximino Garza, (“plaintiff”) while in the service of one of Weeks Marine, Inc.’s (“employer”) vessels.  After his injury, plaintiff’s supervisor took him to a doctor.  Plaintiff was diagnosed with a contused cranium, a mild concussion, and a cervical sprain and was released to work without restriction.  Plaintiff’s pain continued and he returned to the same doctor who again released him without restriction.  This medical care was paid for by his employer.

Plaintiff claimed that his pain persisted and sought permission to seek further treatment with his own doctor.  Plaintiff’s doctor advised him not to work and recommended conservative treatment.  When plaintiff reported no improvement, his doctor prescribed facet injections and, eventually, surgery.  Plaintiff subsequently underwent surgery almost two years after his accident.  The medical treatment plaintiff received from his own physician was not paid for by his employer.

Plaintiff sued his employer, alleging Jones Act negligence, unseaworthiness, unpaid maintenance and cure, and compensatory damages caused by his employer’s alleged unreasonable failure to pay maintenance and cure.  After a jury trial, plaintiff was awarded $1.12 million on his negligence claim, $35,000.00 in unpaid maintenance and cure and $2.5 million based upon his employer’s alleged unreasonable failure to pay maintenance and cure.  These awards were upheld on appeal and the employer sought review from the Supreme Court of Texas.

The employer argued that plaintiff received a double recovery because there was no evidence that its failure to pay maintenance and cure caused any additional injury.  After first deciding that the employer had properly preserved the issue for appeal, the Court addressed the merits of the employer’s contention.  Plaintiff argued the $2.5 million award was proper because he was injured in February 2006, did not have surgery until October 2007, and this twenty-month period of pain was caused by “the shipowner’s recalcitrance.”  The Court disagreed, observing that the employer paid for treatment for three months and, although the employer ceased payment thereafter, plaintiff’s treatment continued.  Indeed, plaintiff saw his physician sixteen to seventeen times after his employer ceased paying for his care and there was no evidence that his treatment was in any way compromised by his employer not paying the medical bills.  There was also no evidence that plaintiff’s treatment would have proceeded any differently if his employer were paying the bills.  The length of treatment was the result of plaintiff’s doctor’s conservative treatment, not a failure of his employer to pay the bills.

Interestingly, the case was tried before the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 129 S. Ct. 2561 (2009), so no punitive damages claim was made for willful and wanton failure to pay maintenance and cure.  Nonetheless, the Court rejected plaintiff’s argument that employers would be encouraged to force seaman to find alternative sources of payment for medical care based upon Townsend’s allowance of punitive damages to curb that practice.

In sum, the Court declined to uphold the $2.5 million award for failure to pay maintenance based upon its conclusion that there was no evidence that a failure to pay caused plaintiff any additional injury that was not already compensated by his award under the Jones Act.  Reversing the trial and intermediate appellate court, the Supreme Court of Texas rendered judgment that plaintiff take nothing on his failure to pay theory.  Three justices dissented from this holding based on their belief that evidence existed to support at least some of plaintiff’s damages on his failure to pay claim.

Weeks Marine, Inc. v. Garza, 2012 WL 2361721 (Tex. 2012).