43 682 Vella v. Ford Motor Company 8212 1994 18 8212 19, 1975

Decision Date15 April 1975
Docket NumberNo. 73,73
Citation421 U.S. 1,43 L.Ed.2d 682,95 S.Ct. 1381
Parties. 43 L.Ed.2d 682 Julian VELLA, Petitioner, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY. —1994. Argued Feb. 18—19, 1975
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

A shipowner's duty to furnish an injured seaman maintenance and cure continues from the date the seaman leaves the ship to the date when a medical diagnosis is made that his injury was permanent immediately after his accident and therefore incurable. Pp. 3-6.

6th Cir., 495 F.2d 1374, reversed and remanded.

Leonard C. Jaques, Detroit, Mich., for petitioner.

John A. Mundell, Jr., Detroit, Mich., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari in this case limited to the question whether a shipowner's duty to furnish an injured seaman maintenance and cure continues from the date the seaman leaves the ship to the date when a medical diagnosis is made that the seaman's injury was permanent immediately after his accident and therefore incurable.1 419 U.S. 894, 95 S.Ct. 171, 42 L.Ed.2d 138 (1974).

Petitioner was a seaman aboard respondent's Great Lakes vessel, S.S. Robert S. McNamara. He was discharged and left the ship on June 29, 1968. Thereafter he filed this suit in the District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, based on a claim that on April 4, 1968, while replacing a lower engineroom deck plate, he slipped and fell on the oily floor plate causing his head to suffer a severe blow when it struck an electrical box. The complaint included a count, among others,2 for maintenance and cure. The medical testimony at the trial was that petitioner suffered from a vestibular disorder defined as damage to the balancing mechanism of the inner ear. The testimony of respondent's medical witness, Dr. Heil, an otolaryngologist, supplied the only medical diagnosis as to the time when the disorder became permanent and not susceptible of curative treatment. Dr. Heil testified on April 27, 1972, that he had recently examined petitioner. He conceded that a severe blow to the head, such as alleged by petitioner, could have caused the disorder. He said, however, that the disorder is not a condition that can be cured by treatment.3 The jury awarded petitioner maintenance and cure in the amount of $5,848. Respondent moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the ground that the award was not within the permissible scope of maintenance and cure. The District Court denied the motion and stated: 'While it is true that maintenance and cure is not available for a sickness declared to be permanent, it is also true that maintenance and cure continues until such time as the incapacity is declared to be permanent.' App. 20a. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed without a published opinion, 495 F.2d 1374 (1974). The Court of Appeals held that 'once the seaman reaches 'maximum medical recovery,' the shipowner's obligation to provide maintenance and cure ceases,' App. 28a, and since '(t)he record in this case does not permit an inference other than that (petitioner's) condition was permanent immediately after the accident,' id., at 29a, the District Court's holding impermissibly extended the shipowner's obligation.

We disagree with the Court of Appeals and therefore reverse. The shipowner's ancient duty to provide maintenance and cure for the seaman who becomes ill or is injured while in the service of the ship derives from the 'unique hazards (which) attend the work of seamen,' and fosters the 'combined object of encouraging marine com- merce and assuring the well-being of seamen.' Aguilar v. Standard Oil Co., 318 U.S. 724, 727, 63 S.Ct. 930, 932, 87 L.Ed. 1107 (1943). To further that 'combined object' we have held that the duty arises irrespective of the absence of shipowner negligence and indeed irrespective of whether the illness or injury is suffered in the course of the seaman's employment. Calmar S.S. Corp. v. Taylor, 303 U.S. 525, 527, 58 S.Ct. 651, 652, 82 L.Ed. 993 (1938). And, '(s)o broad is the shipowner's obligation . . . negligence or acts short of culpable misconduct on the seaman's part will not relieve (the shipowner) of the responsibility.' Aguilar v. Standard Oil Co., supra, at 730—731, 63 S.Ct., at 934. Thus, the breadth and inclusiveness of the shipowner's duty assure its easy and ready administration for '(i)t has few exceptions or conditions to stir contentions, cause delays, and invite litigations.' Farrell v. United States, 336 U.S. 511, 516, 69 S.Ct. 707, 710, 93 L.Ed. 850 (1949).

Denial of maintenance and cure when the seaman's injury, though in fact permanent immediately after the accident, is not medically diagnosed as permanent until long after its occurrence would obviously disserve and frustrate the 'combined object of encouraging marine commerce and assuring the well-being of seamen.' A shipowner might withhold vitally necessary maintenance and cure on the belief, however well or poorly founded, that the seaman's injury is permanent and incurable. Or the seaman, if paid maintenance and cure by the shipowner, might be required to reimburse the payments, if it is later determined that the injury was permanent immediately after the accident. Thus uncertainty would displace the essential certainty of protection against the ravages of illness and injury that encourages seamen to undertake their hazardous calling. Moreover, easy and ready administration of the shipowner's duty would seriously suffer from the introduction of complexities and uncertainty that could 'stir contentions, cause delays, and invite litigations.'

The Shipowners' Liability Convention, made effective for the United States on October 29, 1939, Farrell v. United States, supra, at 517, 69 S.Ct. at 710, buttresses our conclusion that the District Court correctly held that 'maintenance and cure continues until such time as the incapacity is declared to be permanent.'4 That holding tracks the wording of Art. 4, 1, of the convention which provides: 'The shipowner shall be liable to defray the expense of medical care and maintenance until the sick or injured person has been cured, or until the sickness or incapacity has been declared of a permanent character.' 54 Stat. 1696. (Emphasis supplied.) The aim of the convention 'was not to change materially American standards but to equalize operating costs by raising the standards of member nations to the American level.' Warren v. United States, 340 U.S. 523, 527, 71 S.Ct. 432, 435, 95 L.Ed. 503 (1951). Thus Art. 4, 1, is declaratory of a longstanding tradition respecting the scope of the...

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