Mariners must disclose medical histories

A worker on an offshore drilling barge allegedly sustained a lower back injury while working. Because the worker, Brown, was employed aboard a vessel, he was considered a seaman and sought maintenance and cure (M&C) benefits from his employer, Parker Drilling. Parker withheld M&C benefits, suspecting that Brown’s back injury did not occur aboard the barge and that he willfully concealed two previous back injuries when he applied for work.

Evidence at the trial revealed that Brown suffered a back injury three years earlier while lifting a sack of corn. In 1999, two years before his alleged accident with Parker, Brown claimed a back injury while employed at a different drilling company. When Brown applied for employment with Parker in 2000, he completed a pre-employment medical questionnaire. Despite his previous back injuries, Brown checked “no” when asked whether he had “past or present back and neck trouble.”

Under general maritime law, a vessel owner is liable for M&C benefits once a seaman establishes his illness or injury arose while in the service of his vessel. However, a seaman who intentionally misrepresents or conceals medical facts from an employer while applying for work will forfeit M&C if the misrepresented or undisclosed facts are material to the employer’s decision to hire him and there is a causal connection between the withheld information and an injury.

Brown filed suit against Parker seeking M&C benefits as well as monetary damages. A jury awarded substantial damages to Brown, rejecting Parker’s vigorous assertions that Brown was not injured on its rig and had intentionally concealed his prior back injuries. On appeal, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the trial court and rendered judgment in favor of Parker. 

The appellate court ruled that there was a link between Brown’s preexisting injury and the injury in the suit and that he was guilty of willful concealment of his medical history when he first applied at Parker. 

Brown v. Parker Drilling highlights the need for a seaman to be forthcoming in responding to pre-employment medical questionnaires. 

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