The Washington Supreme Court today issued its unanimous, En Banc, opinion in Dean v. Fishing Company of Alaska, Case No. 87407-7, holding that when a vessel owner stops paying maintenance and cure, upon a seaman’s motion for the resumption of payment of maintenance and cure, the summary judgment standard should not apply to the seaman’s motion. Rather, the trial court should order resumption of the payments unless the vessel owner can provide unequivocal evidence that the seaman has reached maximum cure. The Court suggests that as an alternative, a vessel owner wishing to terminate payment of maintenance and cure can pursue an expedited trial of the issue under Civil Rule 42(b).

Under the general maritime law, a vessel owner is obligated to pay maintenance (a living stipend to provide room and board equivalent to that enjoyed on the vessel) and cure (medical expenses) to a seaman who becomes ill or suffers an injury while in the service of the vessel, until such time as the seaman reaches his maximum medical cure from the illness or injury.

Ian Dean suffered an injury caused by working conditions upon a vessel operated by the Fishing Company of Alaska (FCA). Upon learning of the injury the employer/vessel owner commenced paying Dean’s maintenance and cure expenses, which continued for over two years. In 2009, FCA secured a defense medical evaluation of Dean that concluded that Dean had reached his maximum cure. Dean’s treating physician concluded that Dean could still benefit from additional physical and massage therapy. On the strength of the defense medical evaluation, FCA discontinued payments of maintenance.

Dean moved the court for an order compelling FCA to resume payments of maintenance and cure. The trial court, applying the summary judgment standard to Dean’s motion, denied the motion on the basis of the existence of an issue of fact as to whether Dean had reached maximum cure. The case went to arbitration, reserving for possible appeal the issue of the court’s ruling on the maintenance and cure issue. The arbitration resulted in an award in favor of FCA.

Dean then appealed the trial court’s decision on the maintenance and cure issue, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court. On further appeal the Washington Supreme Court, En Banc, unanimously reversed, finding that the trial court erred in applying the summary judgment standard to the seaman’s motion for resumption of maintenance and cure. In its opinion the Court reviewed the historical development of the vessel owner’s obligation of payment of maintenance and cure, and the protection of the interests of seamen by the Courts. Following federal court cases from the District of Alaska and Western District of Washington, the Court concluded that was inconsistent with the protective nature of general maritime law toward seamen to allow vessel owners to unilaterally terminate maintenance and cure and shoulder the injured seaman with the summary judgment burden of proof. Rather, the Court effectively ruled that once the vessel starts paying maintenance & cure, it becomes the vessel owner’s burden to prove that the seaman has unequivocally attained maximum cure. As that is an issue that is often subject to dispute, the Court provided guidance by suggesting that vessel owners wishing to terminate payment of maintenance and cure could avail themselves of an expedited trial on the issue under Washington Civil Rule 42(b).

The court did note that the law was settled that the summary judgment standard does apply to a claimant’s motion to compel the payment of maintenance and cure in the first instance, such as when an employer disputes whether the claimant is a seaman. While this disparity of burdens of proof might appear to encourage a vessel owner to dispute a claimant’s initial entitlement to maintenance and cure, liability exposure to punitive damages under the general maritime law for wrongful denial of maintenance and cure is a powerful disincentive for denial of maintenance and cure in close cases.

It will be interesting to see if this decision results in an increase in motions for expedited trials of the issue of entitlement to continued maintenance and cure under Rule 42, and the reception of such motions by the trial courts.

Congratulations to Mr. Dean’s attorney, John Merriam, for his tenacious and successful pursuit of his client’s interests in a case where the principle at issue was probably far more significant than the amount in dispute.

A copy of the Supreme Court’s decision can be found here.