In a recent opinion as unequivocal as it was terse, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit struck down a seaman’s limited interpretation of a trial court’s right to weigh conflicting medical evidence and assess the credibility of witnesses. In doing so, the Circuit Court affirmed the rule that evidentiary findings lie within the discretion of the trial court, and that the plaintiff in a Jones Act suit bears the burden of proof.
Witbart v. Mandara Spa – Background
The case, Witbart v. Mandara Spa (Hawaii), LLC, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 29285 *, 2021 WL 4439132 (11th Cir., Sept. 28, 2021), involved a seaman who claimed to have suffered neck and spine injuries while employed by Mandara Spa. As a Jones Act seaman, Ms. Sarabeth Witbart claimed to be entitled to maintenance, cure, and damages due to her injuries.
However, Ms. Witbart faced one substantial difficulty in proving her case: medical evidence that her injuries may have been caused by a pre-existing medical condition. Mandara accordingly raised a “McCorpen defense.” The McCorpen defense is an affirmative defense available to a Jones Act employer. If successful, the defense defeats a seaman’s claim entirely. The employer must establish four elements to prove a McCorpen defense:
- The seaman had a serious medical condition that existed before the Jones Act employer hired her;
- The seaman intentionally misrepresented and concealed her preexisting condition from the employer at the time of hiring;
- The employer would not have hired the seaman had it known of her condition; and
- The pre-existing condition is causally related to the injury that she sustained while working for the Jones Act employer.
Mandara raised the McCorpen defense against Ms. Witbart, providing medical records, testimony, and evidence that her neck and back injuries were caused by a pre-existing condition that she concealed from Mandara. Mandara’s evidence, obviously, conflicted with Ms. Witbart’s own medical evidence—which indicated that her neck and back problems arose during her employment at Mandara.
To resolve this conflict, the trial court held an eight-day bench trial. At the end of the bench trial, the trial court determined that Mandara’s evidence was more credible—and accordingly held that Mandara proved its McCorpen defense.
The Appeal in the Eleventh Circuit
On appeal, Ms. Witbart argued that the trial court did not have discretion to weigh conflicting medical records and assess their credibility. She argued that any ambiguities or conflicts must be resolved in favor of the seaman. If the trial court had complied with this requirement, she argued, Mandara would not have been able to prove its McCorpen defense and she would have been able to recover damages.
Ms. Witbart relied on Vaughan v. Atkinson, 369 U.S. 527 (1962), a U.S. Supreme Court case that limited trial courts’ discretion when assessing maintenance and cure. The Supreme Court held in Vaughan that ambiguities or doubts in calculating maintenance and cure must be assessed “in favor of the seaman.” Ms. Witbart claimed that this logic required the trial court to assess conflicting medical records also in favor of the seaman.
The Eleventh Circuit resoundingly rejected this proposition. The court held that Vaughan is limited to calculations of maintenance of cure, and did not require trial courts to assess all ambiguities—let alone conflicting admissible evidence like medical records—in favor of the seaman. The Circuit Court pointed out that such a requirement would strip trial courts of any fact-finding discretion to make credibility determinations. Accordingly, the Circuit Court affirmed that Mandara proved its McCorpen defense and the trial court properly dismissed the plaintiff’s claims.