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What happens if a ship owner refuses maintenance and cure?

On Behalf of | Dec 23, 2020 | Maritime Law

U.S. admiralty law says that when seamen or longshore workers get hurt on the job, they have a right to maintenance and cure. These usually amount to the necessary medical expenses and a meager daily stipend. They’re relatively modest expenses for most owners and vital for the injured workers, so what happens when a ship owner refuses to pay them?

The answer is that you can pursue legal action. It’s possible to hold ship owners accountable for these violations. In fact, as one case shows, owners who don’t pay fair maintenance and cure may end up paying far more in the long run.

Ship owners should know better

Seamen and longshore workers have hard jobs. They often work long hours performing tough, physical work, and they may spend weeks apart from their friends and family. While they’re at sea, they depend on their employers and ship owners to meet certain standards for care. In short, as tough as they may be, these workers often find themselves in vulnerable positions.

Because of this, the law has long sought to protect their rights and safety. In fact, federal courts have maintained that their rights to maintenance and cure are “virtually automatic.”

Nonetheless, employers and ship owners still sometimes deny these payments, such as when the owners of a private yacht, the Picnic, refused to pay the costs for an injured chef. The chef suffered a hernia while aboard the Picnic and needed to get emergency surgery in Cuba. The medical conditions were bad, and the worker needed to get a corrective surgery after suffering complications from the first. He then had to spend three weeks in recovery. Despite this, he originally sought just $4,000 in maintenance and cure. His request was denied. The ship owner claimed the chef had willfully concealed a pre-existing condition and had abused the ship’s internet.

That led to legal action, which the chef ultimately won. In its opinion, the court:

  • Stated the ship owner failed to prove the chef had lied about his condition to seek free medical treatment in Cuba
  • Dismissed the idea that internet abuses were relevant to the matter of maintenance and cure

The ship owner treated the chef badly in other ways, as well. The court found its violations were flagrant. And in the end, the chef received a judgment of $1.2 million—300 times the amount he had originally requested.

It’s possible to push back against unfair denials

If your employer denies you maintenance and cure, you shouldn’t expect your case to repay 300 times the amount. Nonetheless, the chef’s case highlights some of the ways owners often try to shift the blame. Admiralty law introduces matters of fault that don’t exist in most workers’ compensation cases, and owners may claim the fault is all yours.

If this is the case, you want to know your rights. Even if you think you may have contributed to your injury, you may still have a claim. There are many ways to divide the fault. Some of the fault may even lie with the ship itself. However, to push back against unfair denials and show where the fault actually lies, you want a deep understanding of maritime law.