Seamen and vessel owners’ maintenance obligation

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. But what if the seaman returns to work? Does this obligation cease?

The Supreme Court said 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. The top 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 returns to work doesn’t necessarily relieve the obligation to continue paying maintenance. The maintenance obligation is not measured by the fact that 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 flywheel spins on one end. The Berkel 330M is used to create ultra-thin shavings of prosciutto, that salty cured meat.

I pictured this machine when I was thinking about 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 rejigger the Berkel 330M to handle legal issues. Underway and making way.

About the author

John K. Fulweiler

John K. Fulweiler is a licensed mariner and experienced admiralty attorney. He represents individuals and companies throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and has recently taken command of his own maritime law firm. He enjoys navigating the choppy waters of the maritime law, but readily admits to missing life on the water. He can be reached at john@fulweilerlaw.com . His website is www.saltwaterlaw.com.

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