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United States Supreme Court Allows Punitive Damages to Hold Employers Accountable to Pay Seaman’s Medical Bills

On June 25, 2009, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the seaman’s favor! The High Court decided that seamen are entitled, as a matter of general maritime law, to seek punitive damages for their employers’ willful and wanton disregard of its maintenance and cure obligation. Punitive damages are now permitted in cases where the employer acts in bad faith. Punitive damages are designed to punish the employer for bad faith treatment of its employees regarding medical payments.
It is a too frequent story when an employer refuses to pay an injured seaman’s entitlements of maintenance and cure. After being injured on the job, seamen are in need of a consistent income and medical treatment. It was this concern that led to the creation of maintenance and cure, which is a vessel owner’s obligation to provide food, lodging, and medical services to a seaman injured aboard a vessel. While suffering from an injury, both a seaman and his or her family are often dependant on maintenance and cure payments.
Frequently, unfortunately, vessel owners intentionally withhold maintenance and cure payments from seamen. Before this Supreme Court case, employers were able to withhold such obligatory payments with limited financial penalty, leaving the injured seaman with no income and numerous medical bills. These seamen often have to turn to various high interest loans to pay these bills, a last resort to many.
This new case, Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc., v. Townsend, 2009 WL 1789469 (June 25, 2009), allows injured seaman to sue for punitive damages when the employer, in bad faith, refuses to pay the maintenance and cure claims. Punitive damages are damages awarded by a court against a defendant as a deterrent or punishment to redress an intentional wrong committed by the defendant, in this case the employer’s intentional disregard for his or her maintenance and cure obligation. This case will hopefully persuade employers to honor their maintenance and cure obligation, as the financial penalty of withholding such payments may significantly outweigh any gain by the employer.
The law office of Beard, Stacey, Trueb and Jacobsen has successfully held employers accountable for their maintenance and cure obligation in hundreds of cases. In many cases, our lawyers have successfully taken the employer to court and been awarded payment for all missed maintenance and cure payments as well as obtained a court order forcing the employer to continue maintenance and cure payments in the future. For any questions regarding maintenance and cure or maritime law, or wish to discuss an injury sustained while working aboard a vessel, please contact the law office of Beard, Stacey Trueb and Jacobsen at 206.282.3100 or visit our website at

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