U.S. Coast Guard Encourages Pacific Northwest Commercial Operators and Crews to Be Well-Rested

The U.S. Coast Guard recently issued a news bulletin emphasizing the importance of life jackets and adequate sleep for crew members aboard commercial vessels at sea. In January, the Coast Guard took on two rescue operations off the coasts of Oregon and Washington to save crew members. Lack of sleep caused the commercial fishing vessels to run aground, forcing the U.S.C.G. to execute dangerous helicopter and motorboat rescue missions at night.

Fatigue also took the life of one crew member who fell overboard without a life jacket during a week-long crabbing excursion off the coast of Washington. A deckhand deftly followed coldwater survival training guidelines shouting, "Man Overboard!" while putting on an immersion suit and directing a fellow crew-member to throw a life buoy once the man was in sight. The captain turned the ship starboard to better locate the overboard man, and the deckhand jumped in the frigid waters to swim toward his colleague. The overboard crew member had already turned frigid and silent, and went underwater as the deckhand reached him. Despite his heroic attempt, the deckhand was unable to adequately grip the man due to the bulkiness of the immersion suit.

Fatigue is considered to be one of the leading causes of death on commercial shipping vessels. It is the operator's duty under the Jones Act (46 C.F.R. § 15.1111(a)) to provide rest periods for their workers. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals recently considered several maritime issues in Manderson v. Chet Morrison Contractors, Inc. 666 F. 3d 373, 5th Cir. (2012), including whether the vessel operator failed to provide adequate rest as dictated by statute. The appeal stemmed from an underlying case where a dive vessel engineer became ill after 15 months aboard the ship, leaving suddenly to attend to ulcerative colitis, diabetes, and a liver condition. The engineer sued the vessel's owner, arguing that his working conditions of long hours and little sleep violated several statutes under the Jones Act and general maritime law.

The engineer had been awarded the full amount charged for the medical expenses as maintenance and cure. The ship owner contended that its obligation only extended to the actual amount of money paid to the hospital for the expenses, arguing against the court's application of the collateral-source rule to determine the amount of damages. The collateral source rule is a substantive rule of law that bars the liable party from reducing the amount of damages owed to a plaintiff by the amount of recovery the plaintiff receives from other sources of compensation that are independent of (or collateral to) the liable party. (See Davis v. Odeco, Inc., 18 F.3d 1237, at 1243, 5th Cir., (1994)). Cure is an implied term of maritime-employment contact where the ship owner is obligated to pay the medical expenses for seamen injured in its service. However maintenance and cure, unlike standard tort remedies, are not predicated on the fault or negligence of the ship owner.

The Court of Appeals ultimately agreed with the ship owner, and limited the award amount to cover the sum paid to the hospital, not the amount the hospital initially charged the engineer. They determined that the collateral-source rule was incompatible with the maritime remedies of maintenance and cure. The court looked to case law precedent that a seaman may only recover maintenance and cure for those expenses 'actually incurred', and found that the lower court went beyond the scope of cure in their monetary award.

Maintenance and cure are unique concepts to maritime law. If you have been injured and want the knowledgeable counsel of attorneys who can distinguish between common legal remedies and the remedies that are available to those injured while working on a vessel at sea, contact the Pacific Northwest and nationwide maritime attorneys, Gordon Webb and John Merriam for a free consultation.

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