MANHATTAN (CN) – A tugboat operator must provide a seaman medical care for lymphoma that he contracted on board, even though his symptoms did not surface until after his employment, the 2nd Circuit ruled.
The appellate court laid out the undisputed facts of the case in a 20-page decision that it indicated would update maritime law for the 21st century.
Bouchard Transportation hired career tugboat seaman Richard Messier in March 2004 and assigned him to a vessel called the Evening Mist a little more than a year later.
During one of his three “hitches” at sea, Messier fell while climbing down a ladder and one diagnosed with “probable back strain,” according to the court.
“Messier’s back injury was apparently minor, and the pain associated with it quickly subsided,” the appellate court summarized. “But the resulting medical examinations revealed a much more serious problem.”
Physicians diagnosed Messier with B-cell lymphoma in December 2005, two months after his service and nearly a year before he returned to work.
In November 2008, Messier sued his employer for damages.
U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon dismissed the case two years later, finding “it strains the bounds of reason to conclude that a seaman who became ill during or after a voyage in 1492 could have recovered maintenance and cure from a prior shipowner on the ground that the disease was lurking in his bloodstream in 1489.”
But the 2nd Circuit rejected the notion that employers must apply a Columbus-era standard of their medical liabilities, in a decision first reached in July and amended on Wednesday.
“[T]here is no reason to limit maintenance and cure to the medical science of centuries ago,” U.S. Circuit Judge Peter Hall wrote for the panel. “Even if ‘[t]he concept that a slow-growing, symptomless disease might lurk inside a human body for years or decades was undreamed of’ in the Fifteenth Century, … it is a well-known reality today. And rather than fixing the doctrine in medicine of ages past, admiralty courts have viewed maintenance and cure as a flexible doctrine, and have allowed it to evolve with new technology.”
Hall’s colleagues Raymond Lohier and Gerard Lynch joined in the decision.
The panel brushed aside Judge McMahon’s concern that holding Bouchard liable would “inevitably lead to exceedingly complicated litigation over when a seaman first contracted a particular slow-growing disease.”
“We appreciate the district court’s caution, but we respectfully disagree,” the panel concluded, adding later, “At bottom, the district court’s discomfort with the occurrence rule is, perhaps, understandable. After all, a rule imposing liability on an employer for an injury that was known neither to the employer nor the employee during the period of employment seems odd-at least outside the admiralty context. But admiralty is different, and maintenance and cure is a unique remedy. It is ‘broad.’ … We are to be ‘liberal in interpreting’ it ‘for the benefit and protection of seamen.'”
The case will return to Judge McMahon, with instructions for her to grant Messier summary judgment and prepare for a trial to determine how much Bouchard owes.