If you are injured while working in the maritime industry, maintenance and cure laws may apply to you. Under general maritime law, an employer has an obligation to provide an injured employee with maintenance and cure—which is a type of compensation to help during their recovery. The obligation of a shipowner who employs seamen to care for them if they are injured or become ill is of ancient vintage. This duty appears in the medieval sea codes and is undoubtedly of earlier origin.

What is Maintenance and Cure?

Maintenance is the right of a seaman to food and lodging if he falls ill or becomes injured while in the service of the ship. Cure is the right to necessary medical services. Both extend to the point of the seaman’s maximum recovery. The seaman also has a right to be paid unearned wages for the period from the onset of the injury or illness to the end of the voyage. The duty to provide maintenance and cure embraces not only the obligation to pay a subsistence allowance and to reimburse the seaman for medical expenses he incurs; the employer must take all reasonable steps to ensure that the seaman who is injured or ill receives proper care and treatment.

The obligation to pay maintenance, cure and unearned wages arises whenever the seamen becomes ill or is injured, regardless of any negligence or fault on the part of the employer. The illness need not be one associated with the seaman’s occupational thus the obligation can arise out of a medical condition such as a heart problem, a prior illness that recurs during the seamen’s’ employment, or an injury suffered on shore. Virtually any illness, even purely psychological problems can render a seaman eligible for maintenance and cure. Maintenance and cure are intended to be a remedy free of uncertainty and administrative red tape. The employer has a duty to promptly investigate any claim and should resolve doubts in favor of paying the seamen his due. The duty to pay maintenance and cure commences went the seamen falls ill or is injured and leaves the ship. This duty continues until the seamen reaches the point of maximum cure or recovery.

The duty to provide seaman with maintenance and care embraces not only obligation to provide subsistence allowance and to pay for medical expenses actually incurred by seamen, but to take all reasonable steps to ensure that seaman, when he is injured or becomes ill, receives proper care and treatment. It is established that a shipowner owes to its seamen the duty to provide them with proper medical care, and that a breach of this duty will render the shipowner liable for the consequential damages suffered by the seamen as a result of that breach.

Maintenance and cure is not only a contract right but is a right under the general maritime law accorded to seamen by long tradition in recognition of the special damages and sacrifices which characterize maritime employment. It cannot be waived by contract. The shipowner’s obligation is deep-rooted in maritime law and is an implied term of a contract for maritime employment.

Ancient Origins

For centuries, a seaman’s right to maintenance and cure when sick or injured in the service of the vessel without willful misbehavior on their part has been recognized by the general maritime law. Since ancient times, seafaring nations have employed the doctrine of maintenance and cure to provide room, board, and medical care for injured seamen. Maintenance and cure provided injured seamen with a per diem living allowance, paid to the seamen by the shipowner, while the seaman recovered ashore. The doctrine of maintenance and cure was based on the belief that the vessel served as the seaman’s home and the seaman should be entitled to continue receiving lodging and good even when he was sick. Traditionally, maintenance provided for the cost of obtaining food and lodging comparable to that which the seaman received at sea. Cure provided for payment of medical expenses incurred in the treatment of the seaman’s injury or illness.

The right of maintenance and cure stems from the ancient sea codes of the Middle Ages, which has been termed “the common law of the sea,” and may be of even earlier origins. The common law states that “recovery encompasses wages to the end of the voyage and subsistence, lodging and acre to the point where the maximum cure attainable has been reached.” Vide the Hanseatic Law, art. 35. 1 Peters’ Admiralty Decisions (1807). The Hanseatic League was a trade group that ran from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Article 35 of the Laws of the Hanse Towns states that: “the seamen are obliged to defend their ship against rovers, on pain of losing their wages; and if they are wounded, they shall be healed and cured at the general charge of the concerned in a common average. If anyone of them is maimed and disabled, he shall be maintained as long as he lives by a like average.”

Historical Background

The doctrine of maintenance and cure has been an enumerated part of maritime law since 1150 when Eleanor de Guienne brought France’s sea codes, the Laws of Oléron, to England. The Laws of Oléron addressed every facet of admiralty voyages, from obtaining vessels to crew requirements and were cited as authority in the admiralty courts of England. During his reign, King Richard I of England adopted the Laws of Oléron and formally recognized the seamen’s right to maintenance and cure.

Admiralty law in the United States originated from England’s common law. Initially, admiralty laws referred to those that governed the Royal Navy and cases that involved ships and nautical commerce. The term maritime was used to describe the nature of the case, and which laws applied. However, over time, the differences between admiralty and maritime lost their significance and the two words are now used interchangeably.

Until the end of the American Revolution in 1783, most courts in the American colonies adopted English law, including English admiralty law. To facilitate the hearing of admiralty cases, Courts of the Vice Admiralty were established by the crown in leading ports. After the American Revolution, however, U.S. Federal District Courts began to fashion their own maintenance and cure laws separate from those of England. To this day, Federal Courts have jurisdiction over admiralty matters. The Federal Admiralty Statutes detail a set of guidelines that explain rules and regulations regarding maritime torts and contracts, and exactly how maritime cases should be presented. It was also brought about by a series of case law and international treaties.

Through case law, the United States Courts based their maintenance and cure laws on the established maritime general law principle that a seaman, inured in the service of the ship, received maintenance and cure at the expense of the ship. The maintenance and cure doctrine developed in the U.S. Courts to shield seamen from the severity of the seafaring life and was first mentioned by Associate Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story in 1823.

“The purpose of the historic implied contract to maintain an injured seaman arises from his helplessness during his injury, a right every court should watch with jealousy to maintain.

Seamen by the peculiarity of their lives liable to sudden sickness from change of climate, exposure to perils, and exhausting labor…. If some provision be not made for them in sickness at the expense of the ship, they must often in foreign ports suffer the accumulated evils of disease, poverty, and sometimes perish from the want of suitable nourishment. these expenses are a charge upon the ship, the interest of the owner will be immediately connected with that of the seamen. The master will watch over their health with vigilance and fidelity. He will take the best methods as well to prevent diseases, a s to ensure a speedy recovery from them. He will never be tempted to abandon the sick to their forlorn fate, but his duty, combing with the interest of this owner, will lead him to succor their distress, and shed a cheering kindness over the anxious hours of suffering and despondency.”

-Justice Story, in Harden v. Gordon, 11 Fed. Cas. (page) 480, No. 6047.

Justice Story was first to formally recognize the doctrine of maintenance and cure in the United States. Justice Story argued that because the admiralty laws in Europe consistently recognized maintenance and cure as an admiralty right, the United States should also adopt the doctrine. He saw seamen as “wards of the admiralty.” Due to the severe conditions of the seafaring life, Justice Story declared that seamen needed the protection of maintenance and cure. Fearing that shipowners would try to take advantage of seamen’s inexperience and coerce them to sign unfavorable contracts, he reasoned that seamen needed courts to act as their guardians against shipowners. Justice Story supported the granting of maintenance and cure by explaining that a seaman’s pay alone was usually insufficient to meet the expenses of illness. Without monetary aid from shipowners, he suggested, seamen faced hardship or even death, particularly when their illness caused them to be discharged in a foreign port.

Justice Story found that certain benefits arose to both shipowners and seamen from holding shipowners liable for their employees’ welfare: (1) requiring shipowners to bear the expenses of maintenance and cure would encourage them to provide safer working environments—thereby reducing the number of accidents—which would decrease the number of seamen requesting maintenance and cure, and the shipowner would therefore expend less money and maintenance and cure payments; and (2) providing maintenance and cure constitutes good public policy because, if seamen know that the shipowner will pay for work related injures, the seamen may more willingly enter the profession and face the dangerous tasks inherent in seafaring.

The enforcement of the duty to pay maintenance and cure is also an international obligation of the United States. In 1936, U.S. delegates attended the International Labor Organization conference in Geneva along with delegates from several countries to discuss the possibility of an international agreement regulating shipowners’ liability to their seamen. The Convention was brought about in an attempt to clarify the liability of shipowners for their seamen’s injuries. The conference participants drafted a proposed convention, which the U.S. delegates subsequently submitted to Congress where it was ratified by both the House and the Senate, and then signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After being signed in to law, the document became known as the Shipowner’s Liability Convention of 1939. It obliges shipowners to pay compensation to seamen who are injured or fall sick during their employment providing that the “shipowner shall be liable to defray the expense of medical care and maintenance until the sick or injured person has been cured.”

Some courts have used this Convention to assert statutory support for the position that maintenance and cure is an admiralty right. The U.S. Supreme Court has held on several occasions that the Convention reinforced the traditional admiralty right of maintenance and cure. Although the Convention adopted a statutory framework for seamen’s misconduct, the Supreme Court has held that the Convention did not preempt the general admiralty law rights of seamen. This holding was also consistent with the clause within the Convention that stated that it would not affect any national law that granted a more favorable result for the seaman.

Contemporary Maintenance and Cure Analysis

An attorney handling a claim for damages resulting from the shipowner’s breach of, or negligence in connection with, their duty to provide medical care to a crewmember should carefully consider the alternative remedies available. These alternative remedies include an action for breach of the duty to provide maintenance and cure under the general maritime law, for negligence under the Jones Act or at common law, or in some circumstances an action based on unseaworthiness. Aside from the choice of remedies, there may be a choice between available forums, and counsel should carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of prosecuting the claim in one of the available courts.

If you or a family member has experienced an accident while in the course of maritime employment, or if you have questions regarding how to handle a particular admiralty incident, please contact our team of legal professionals that specifically handle maritime cases. The maritime injury lawyers at Morrow & Sheppard are privileged to assist those who have been injured in maritime accidents and have experience litigating the complicated legal issues that a shipowners’ breach of maintenance and cure analysis may involve.

Call us today at (800) 489-2216 for a free consultation regarding your potential maritime claim.

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