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Court Grants Trial for Seaman Who Signed Release Form

A seaman injured in a two vessel collision was able to have a Louisiana Court invalidate his release clause and therefore bring the fishing company to trial after the vessel’s doctor’s diagnosis was incorrect.
Clifton Lewis was a mate aboard one of the vessels in the collision. Upon impact, he fell against a table where he hit his left side. Lewis was knocked down again by fellow seamen “stampeding for the exit.” Lewis complained of pain shortly thereafter and went ashore to be looked at by an orthopedic surgeon the fishing company hired. The doctor, Dr. Duval, concluded that Lewis sustained “no serious injuries, only some soreness.”
The fishing company, Omega, then hired an attorney, Alan Breaud, to settle potential injury claims that would arise from the collision. Breaud met with Lewis to explain his rights and offer a release of potential claims for $500. Lewis accepted this offer based on Dr. Duval’s assessment that his leg and side “won’t give Lewis any permanent problems.”
Six weeks after the collision, Lewis experienced increase pain and left work for another doctor. This new doctor diagnosed Lewis with two-level disc herniation. Lewis proceeded to sue Omega and the other vessel that collided, Cardinal, for his injuries. Omega argued that Lewis had forfeited his rights to a trial by signing the release form and taking the $500. The district court disagreed and allowed Lewis to proceed with his trial, which he won. On appeal, the court focused on Lewis’ knowledge of his rights. The court ruled that, because Dr. Duval’s diagnosis was drastically incorrect, Mr. Lewis did not fully understand his rights. According to the 1975 case Robertson v. Douglas S.S. Co., a “mistake with regard to diagnosis has long been recognized as cause for setting aside a seaman’s release.” The court therefore ruled that Mr. Lewis’ release form was invalid, and allowed him to bring the case to court.
Seamen who become injured or ill while working a sea should not sign an agreement of any kind without knowing your rights and full extent of your medical condition. The fishing company will, like in this case, try to settle any dispute before you fully know your rights or the extent of your injuries. Signed releases are often upheld in court, so this case should not be seen as the norm. Anyone with questions regarding this case or any injury sustained while working aboard a vessel should contact the Law Office of Beard Stacey Trueb and Jacobsen LLP to know your rights and options. To contact us, please call 206.282.3100 or visit our website at www.atsealawyer.com.