Fifth Circuit Reinforces Maritime Employer’s Third-Party Claim for Contribution for Maintenance and Cure

In a recent maritime case, Poincon v. Offshore Marine Contractors, Inc., the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals analyzed a contribution claim for maintenance and cure liability between a maritime employer (“Offshore Marine”) and a third party (“REC”).

Poincon v. Offshore Marine Contractors, Inc. – Background

The underlying case in Poincon v. Offshore Marine Contractors, Inc., 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 24438 (5th Cir. Aug. 13, 2021) involved personal injury to a cook on a liftboat arising out a 2015 collision with an REC vessel and a 2018 slip and fall. Although the plaintiff alleged injury as a result of the 2015 collision with ongoing symptoms, she did not assert a claim for maintenance and cure. However, following her 2018 slip and fall, her symptoms worsened and she ultimately filed suit against both Offshore Marine and REC.

The district court severed the plaintiff’s claims against REC. This prompted Offshore Marine to assert a third-party complaint against REC for contribution to its maintenance and cure obligation. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of REC, holding that the 2018 slip and fall was not a foreseeable consequence of the 2015 collision and that the 2018 slip and fall was an intervening and superseding cause that cut off liability to REC for maintenance and cure.

Fifth Circuit Reversal

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit stated that the district court relied on its own new rule for contribution claims involving multiple accidents: “a first accident’s maintenance and cure obligation ends where a second accident’s begins.” The Fifth Circuit held that the district court erred in adopting a new rule of law where there was governing Fifth Circuit precedent.

The Fifth Circuit noted three cases which developed the right of maritime employers to seek contribution for maintenance and cure:

  • Bertram v. Freeport McMoran, Inc., 35 F.3d 1008, 1013 (5th Cir. 1994)
  • Adams v. Texaco, Inc., 640 F.2d 618 (5th Cir. Unit A Mar. 1981)
  • Savoie v. Lafourche Boat Rentals, Inc., 627 F.2d 722 (5th Cir. Unit A 1980)

Contrary to the rule announced by the district court, these cases stand for the proposition that a third party is liable for an employer’s expense of maintenance and cure to the extent the third party’s negligence caused or contributed to the employee’s injury and need for maintenance and cure. To show entitlement to contribution, a maritime employer must show negligence and causation. While negligence is often straightforward, causation can be more complicated as it may implicate the common law negligence doctrines of proximate cause and superseding cause.

The Fifth Circuit found the pragmatic concerns of the district court regarding the difficulty of applying Adams/Savoie/Bertram to different factual circumstances presented by separate accidents to be unfounded. The court noted that complicated questions of fact are routinely submitted to the factfinder.  The court also took issue with the district court’s treatment of superseding cause, which effectively absolved REC of proving this affirmative defense at trial.

The Fifth Circuit concluded that Offshore Marine established a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether REC caused, in part, the plaintiff’s need for maintenance and cure and remanded the case for further proceedings.