David C. Pellegrin
When Can a Maritime Employer Deny Maintenance and Cure to an Injured Seaman Based on Past Misrepresentations
Published by The Pellegrin Firm June 29, 2020
On March 3, 2020, Judge Wendy Vitter of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana granted summary judgement to an employer in a case pertaining to the denial of maritime maintenance and cure benefits. An injured maritime worker, Harrington, requested maintenance and following an injury sustained while working on an Adriatic Marine vessel on March 18, 2018. Harrington lost his footing, causing him to fall and hit his lower back on an angle iron, leading him to be later diagnosed with a lumbar contusion. Adriatic received claims from Harrington requesting maintenance and cure benefits. Adriatic started benefits, but after further investigation, it terminated benefits based on the McCorpen defense.
Maritime law recognizes a seaman’s right to maintenance and cure for injuries suffered in the course of service to his vessel, whether on land or sea. The McCorpen defense, named for a previous case, relies on three prongs which the vessel owner must establish: (1) the seaman intentionally misrepresented or concealed medical facts; (2) he misrepresented or concealed facts were material to the employer’s hiring decision; and (3) there is a causal link between the pre-existing disability that was concealed and the disability that occurred during the voyage.
When handed a pre-employment questionnaire by Adriatic, Harrington circled “no” to several questions regarding having or previously having neck and back pain or injuries. However, Harrington visited doctors from November 2009 to May 2011 complaining of lower back pain. He would later be diagnosed as suffering from “back pain with a degenerative disc disease and obesity.” Harrington claimed to not understand the questions on the questionnaire but based on his ability to understand other and similar documents, the court decided that the first prong of McCorpen was satisfied. The questionnaire was also labeled with a major disclaimer that clearly outlined that intentionally misrepresenting or concealing medical would make the seaman not entitled to an award of maintenance and cure. The court found that this disclaimer made it clear that the questionnaire was material to making hiring decisions. The third prong of McCorpen was very clearly satisfied as Harrington’s concealed medical information and his current injury and treatment revolved around the same issue: back pain.
Judgement was granted in favor of Adriatic Marine, and Harrington’s claims for maintenance and cure were dismissed with prejudice.