A recent federal district court case out of New York highlights the protections for seamen who become ill while in the service of the vessel and the inherent risks of a maritime employer for failing to provide adequate medical treatment.

In the case of Adam v. Liberty Maritime Corporation, an able seaman became ill while serving overseas on the bulk carrier Liberty Eagle. The 59-year-old seaman had pre-existing high blood pressure and diabetes and began showing signs of illness characterized by swelling in the legs and feet while at sea. He reported his condition to the ship’s captain and arrangements were made to have the seaman evaluated via a telemedicine appointment with a service provider in the U.S. The consulting physician initially misdiagnosed the seaman’s condition. It worsened until it became evident the seaman was suffering from a serious heart condition.

The seaman filed suit against the doctor, his employer and the ship’s captain, claiming that he was not provided adequate medical treatment which resulted in a worsening of his condition. In ruling in favor of the seaman, the court pointed out that a shipowner has an absolute duty to provide proper medical treatment for seaman who falls ill or is injured while in the service of the ship, regardless of fault.

While the nature of the medical treatment that is required is largely dependent on the facts of each situation, shipowners are generally obligated to provide what is “reasonable and necessary” for the seaman’s care and recovery. The fact that the seaman received telemedicine services initially was not found to fall below the standard of reasonable care by the shipowner. However, because the treatment that was provided in this manner was not properly rendered and resulted in the wrong diagnosis, the court found that the seaman’s negligence claims were well founded. It concluded that the doctor’s mistreatment constituted negligence.

Moreover, as a shoreside agent acting on behalf of the shipowner, the doctor’s negligence was attributed to the vessel owner/employer. The court further found that the vessel’s captain failed to exercise reasonable care with regard to the seaman’s medical needs by failing to fully inform the shore-side doctor of the seaman’s symptoms, and the vessel owner was likewise vicariously liable for the captain’s negligence.

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