The obligation of maintenance is triggered when a seaman is disabled while in the service of the vessel no matter the cause. It's an obligation intended and enforced to protect the "poor and friendless" sailor – hey, those are the court's words not mine! But what if the seaman returns to work? Does the obligation of maintenance cease?
The Supreme Court explains that a vessel owner's liability for maintenance is one of the "most pervasive" of all with any doubts to be resolved in the seaman's favor. This top shelf court has also allowed recovery of maintenance payments without deducting the earnings a seaman made after his injury. There's case law to support the idea that maintenance is unique and the courts seem (rightly so) reluctant to penalize a seaman who is driven back to work against the tune of "I owe, I owe so off to work I go."
The fact that a seaman is labeled 'fit-for-duty' and begins back at work doesn't necessarily relieve the obligation to continue paying maintenance. The maintenance obligation is not measured by the fact a seaman is back aboard the vessel, but by whether the seaman has reached his or her maximum possible improvement.
While exceptions exist, keep in mind that a seaman who returns to work and receives food and lodging at no cost might not be entitled to maintenance. The other side of the coin is that an injured seaman doesn't likely forfeit payment of maintenance and cure if there remains a reasonable possibility that further treatment will aid in restoring him or her to pre-accident condition.
Some Italian restaurants are equipped with a Berkel 330M meat slicer. Its cast casing is lacquered in red paint and a fly-wheel spins on one end making it the kind of thing they place in view of the dining room. When it's spinning, it'll distract you from your dinner date. Whatever the case, the Berkel 330M is used to create ultra-thin shavings of that salty cured meat called Prosciutto. I pictured this machine when I was thinking about these issues of a vessel owner's maintenance obligation and a seaman returning to work. These legal meats are sliced fine making the facts of each seaman's situation particularly important. Too bad they can't re-jigger the Berkel 330M to handle legal issues!
Underway and making way.
John K. Fulweiler, Esq. is a Proctor-in-Admiralty representing individuals and small businesses in maritime matters including personal injury claims throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and with his office in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or visit his website at www.saltwaterlaw.com