A Washington State King County jury has awarded total damages in the amount of $1.6 million dollars to a crewman injured on an Alaska fish processor owned by Icicle Seafoods. $1.3 million dollars of the award was for punitive damages for Icicles’ wilful and wanton failure to pay maintenance and cure benefits as required by Federal law. Mr. Clausen, the injured crewman, was represented by Jim Jacobsen of the Seattle based maritime injury law firm of Beard Stacey & Jacobsen.
In February of 2006, Dana Clausen, a 55 year old Louisiana fisherman suffered back injuries in a lifting accident aboard the fish processing barge BERING STAR. Icicle disputed Clausen’s right to maintenance and cure. During the course of trial Icicle was ordered to produce a secret medical report they had commissioned relating to Clausen’s need for further treatment. The physician had reviewed Clausen’s records had recommended further treatment for Clausen and noted the need for possible surgery in the future. Icicle ignored the report, and subsequently commissioned a second medical report from a different physician indicating that Clausen needed no further treatment.
Under Federal maritime law, employers owe their crewman a good faith duty to administer maintenance and cure benefits. All doubts as to entitlements of benefits are to be resolved in favor of the injured seaman. Where there is conflicting medical evidence, the issue should be resolved in favor of the injured seaman. The King County jury found that Icicle was unreasonable in their failure to pay Clausen maintenance and cure and that Icicle’s conduct was willful and wanton.
In June, 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States made it clear in Atlantic Soundings v. Townsend that punitive damages were available in maintenance and cure claims. In addition to punitive damages, a seaman may also recover reasonable attorney fees for the improper withholding of maintenance and cure. Post trial proceedings will now determine Clausen’s rights to an award of additional attorney fees.