Vella v. Ford Motor Co.
421 U.S. 1 (1975)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Vella v. Ford Motor Co., 421 U.S. 1 (1975)

Vella v. Ford Motor Co.

No. 73-1994

Argued February 18-19, 1975

Decided April 15, 1975

421 U.S. 1

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT

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. 422 U. S. 3-6.

495 F.2d 1374, reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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

Page 421 U. S. 2

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. [Footnote 1] 419 U.S. 894 (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 engine room 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, [Footnote 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

Page 421 U. S. 3

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. [Footnote 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 CirClit 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 dlsagree 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 commerce

Page 421 U. S. 4

and assuring the wellbeing of seamen." Aguilar v. Standard Oil Co.,318 U. S. 724, 318 U. S. 727 (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, 303 U. S. 527 (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 318 U. S. 730-731. 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, 336 U. S. 516 (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 wellbeing 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."

Page 421 U. S. 5

The Shipowners' Liability Convention, made effective for the United States on October 29, 1939, Farrell v. United States, supra, at 336 U. S. 517, 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." [Footnote 4] That holding tracks the wording of Art. 4,

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