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San Francisco Maritime Law Journal Article Reviews Maximum Cure Rule

The rights of seamen who are injured while aboard vessels arise out of a complex array of established admiralty law principles, statutory provisions such as the Jones Act and General Maritime Law, as well as regulatory oversight. One of the most important duties of maritime lawyers is holding ship owners to their responsibility to provide maintenance and cure to injured crew members.

Maintenance under the Jones Act means daily compensation to cover the costs of basic food and shelter that the seaman would have received aboard the vessel while working. Maintenance rates are low and typically range from $15 to $50 per day. Cure, as provided under the Jones Act, includes medical treatment, prescription medications, therapy, doctor visits, nursing services, hospital expenses and other necessary treatment in the course of recovery until the seaman reaches maximum medical improvement.

Seamen file maritime injury claims to seek full compensation for lost wages. However, maritime employers are responsible to provide medical care and other injury-related expenses, regardless of whether a claim is filed and irrespective of fault. One persistent issue in resolving legal claims for injuries at sea is the extent of “cure” to which the injury victim is entitled.

A recent article in the University of San Francisco Maritime Law Journal, “The Maximum Cure Rule in Retrospect: Distinguishing the Duration from the Scope of Maintenance” looks at the federal court caselaw that governs compensation of seamen for injuries. In essence, author Matthew Juneau argues that the Supreme Court has failed to define the necessary extent of medical care that a vessel owner’s cure obligations require. This results in ship owners and employers attempting to limit rightful cure obligations to seamen.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Vella Holding and “Palliative” Treatment of Injuries

Under American Admiralty Law, the maintenance and cure obligation was first recognized by a federal court in the 1823 case Harden v. Gordon. Further cases clarified that this duty exists independent of a ship owner’s negligence or a vessel’s unseaworthiness and emphasized that maintenance and cure encourages marine commerce by protecting seamen against the unique hazards of their profession.

The threshold of legal development that Juneau’s article focuses on is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1975 opinion Vella v. Ford Motor Company, which held that an injured seaman is entitled to maintenance and cure only until a medical diagnosis is made that the medical condition is permanent and therefore incurable. This holding has become known to maritime attorneys as the “maximum cure” rule. While the rule had been recognized as early as 1940 in one federal circuit, it took nearly four decades for the maximum cure rule to become the law of the land.

Juneau is critical of the Vella court for creating a legal standard that focused only on the duration of a condition up to a subjective point of cure rather than addressing the scope of maintenance necessary to cure a particular condition. He argues that maritime lawyers and federal judges would be better served by an objective standard that articulated a ship owner’s duty to provide “palliative” care – treatments that would arrest further progress of a medical condition, reduce the injury victim’s pain or otherwise provide therapeutic relief.

Because legal developments since have not brought much clarity, Juneau argues in favor of a new objective legal standard to replace the subjectivity of focusing on the injured individual’s circumstances. This standard must take into account the effects of each particular treatment a plaintiff seeks, but he maintains that it should encompass any and all treatments that can improve a seaman’s condition to any extent.

Legal Options for Personal Injury Victims Hurt at Sea

Assessing the extent and nature of the harm suffered by a maritime employee is a critical part of any case for compensation. An unduly optimistic assessment of the prospects for healing from severe head injuries, fractures, back injuries and other bodily harm can undermine a seaman’s long term financial security by limiting his or her wage loss damages.

In the legal setting, maximum cure, also known as maximum medical improvement, is a complex legal issue that must be approached with the unique harm suffered by each person in mind. Injured deckhands and others eligible for legal relief under either common law maintenance and cure actions or the Jones Act deserve full compensation for injuries that occur due to slippery decks, equipment malfunctions and a host of other dangerous circumstances.

Assessment of a seaman’s injuries can pose challenging issues about the proper timing of a maritime injury lawsuit. While statutes of limitations on Jones Act claims encourage prompt action, the potential for latent symptoms to develop may make it prudent to wait for a better understanding of the full extent of the employee’s injuries prior to submitting a settlement demand.

For this reason, maritime injury lawyers work closely with medical professionals to determine the full extent of the harm suffered by a client. However, injured seaman will benefit from learning about their legal options as soon after the injury as possible.