No, a vessel owner or employer cannot unilaterally terminate maintenance and cure benefits without serious justification.
Maintenance and cure requires that vessel owners and employers provide sick and injured seaman their basic living expenses and reasonable and necessary medical expenses until the point that they reach maximum medical improvement (MMI). But that raises a question: in situations where the nature, extent or continuing character of an illness or injury are disputed, who or what decides if MMI is reached and if benefits may be terminated? For instance, employers or vessel owners often order a seaman take a medical exam at the hands of their physicians to determine their medical condition. The employer’s doctor and seaman’s treating physician often disagree on the nature of the injury, the care required to treat it, and if MMI has been reached. What happens then?
While physicians make medical recommendations, maritime principles strongly favor protecting injured and sick seaman and continuing benefits penalizing termination in all but the most justifiable instances.
First, maritime law recognizes that any ambiguity or doubts concerning MMI are resolved in favor of the injured seaman. Benefits must be liberally interpreted to the benefit and protection of the seaman. It is the obligation of the shipowner to investigate all medical evidence in determining whether maintenance and cure continue to be owed.
Second, owners and employers may expose themselves to punitive damages by the unilateral termination of benefits. Where benefits are unilaterally terminated, the employer or vessel owner bears the burden of showing unequivocal justification for the decision. In these instances, courts have held that a second opinion contrary to a treating provider’s opinion is not unequivocal evidence. Termination of benefits based on contrary opinion alone may thus support imposing punitive damages on vessel owners and employers.
These principles of maritime law make clear that vessel owners and employers may not unilaterally terminate maintenance and cure benefits without a legitimate basis or risk punitive damages.
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