Summary Judgment Standard Properly Applied on Seaman’s Pretrial Motion to Reinstate Maintenance and Cure

A Washington state appellate court recently examined the “obvious tension” between the standard on summary judgment requiring that doubts be resolved in favor of the non-mover and the canon of admiralty law that doubts be resolved in favor of a seaman.  The issue came up in the context of a seaman’s pretrial motion to reinstate maintenance and cure payments.

The plaintiff, a crewmember aboard a fish processing vessel, developed numbness and tingling in his hands and pain in his neck after having to work in a cramped area 16 to 18 hours per day.  The plaintiff treated with several doctors from 2006 to 2009.  An EMG study was performed in July 2009 but no further treatment was recommended at that time.  In August 2009, the plaintiff underwent an independent medical examination at the request of his employer, The Fishing Company of Alaska (“FCA”), which yielded normal results and no recommendation of further treatment.  FCA subsequently discontinued the plaintiff’s maintenance and cure, relying on the results of the independent medical examination.  The plaintiff sued for damages under the Jones Act and general maritime law.  After filing suit, the plaintiff moved to reinstate his maintenance and cure.  Applying the summary judgment standard, the court denied the motion because plaintiff failed to show the absence of a genuine factual issue as to his entitlement to maintenance and cure.

On appeal, the court discussed the background and principles underlying maintenance and cure and noted that the United States Supreme Court has held that “ambiguities or doubts regarding payment of a seaman’s entitlements must be resolved in favor of the seaman.”  Vaughan v. Atkinson, 369 U.S. 527, 532 (1962).  Although the plaintiff conceded that the conflicting medical opinions created a factual dispute, he argued that the trial court should not have applied the summary judgment standard but, rather, should have resolved the ambiguities in favor of reinstating his maintenance and cure.

In the absence of United States Ninth Circuit or Supreme Court guidance on the question, the court relied on unpublished decisions from the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington.  One of the cited cases, Buenbrazo v. Ocean Alaska, LLC, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 98731 (W.D. Wash. 2/28/2007), rejected the argument advanced by the plaintiff, reasoning that Vaughan did not intend to thwart well-established summary judgment procedure. To disregard genuine factual issues before each party could be heard on the merits “places too heavy a thumb on the scale in favor of the seaman.”

The plaintiff relied on another unpublished decision, Gouma v. Trident Seafoods, Inc., 2008 WL 2020442 (W.D. Wash. 5/3/2008), which refused to apply the summary judgment standard to a similar motion.  The court distinguished Gouma on the ground that in that case there was no dispute over the fact that the plaintiff was injured in the service of the vessel.  The only dispute was over the need for a certain medical procedure and whether the plaintiff had reached maximum medical cure.  In this posture, the court in Gouma found it appropriate to give the plaintiff a “presumptive continuance of maintenance and cure.”

The court of appeals declined to follow Gouma, explaining that it was merely persuasive authority and the passage relied on by the plaintiff was stated in dicta.  Distinguishing Gouma, the court pointed out that the plaintiff’s initial entitlement to maintenance and cure was at issue in this case and was more similar to Buenbrazo.

The court concluded that the summary judgment standard was properly applied.  The plaintiff did not suggest a more appropriate procedure under the applicable rules and did not suggest an alternative procedure in the trial court.  Although the court was “sensitive to the special solicitude traditionally paid to seamen,” the admonition in Vaughan was not meant to undermine the summary judgment procedure.

Dean v. The Fishing Company of Alaska, Inc., — P.3d –, 2012 WL 688229 (Wash. Ct. App. Mar. 5, 2012)