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Ship worker injured at sea due remuneration despite pre-existing condition: Court

Posted On: Jul. 30, 2014 12:00 AM CST

The owner of a commercial fishing vessel must pay for lodging, food and medical expenses for a ship crew member who suffers from long-term anemia after a 2008 accident on the boat, even though his condition may have been related to his prior hepatitis C diagnosis, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Santos Ramirez was a crew member on a commercial fishing ship owned by Seaford, Virginia-based Carolina Dream Inc. for eight years, court records show. He was injured in December 2008 when the ship encountered rough seas off the New Jersey coast, causing him to fall and strike his jaw against his bunk.

Mr. Ramirez suffered a cut inside his mouth, and began feeling dizzy, weak and nauseated in the days following his fall, according to records. He asked to be brought ashore, but the ship's captain told Mr. Ramirez that he was required to perform his duties until the end of that trip.

Mr. Ramirez's condition worsened before the ship returned to shore several days later, records show. Upon his return, Mr. Ramirez's wife took him directly to an emergency room and he was hospitalized for a month.

Mr. Ramirez was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, in which the body does not produce sufficient new red blood cells, records show. One of his treating doctors said that the cause of Mr. Ramirez's disease was unknown, but noted that the condition could have been caused by Mr. Ramirez's prior history of hepatitis C.

The condition has left Mr. Ramirez unable to work, and he continues to be treated for his illness, records show. He filed a negligence lawsuit in 2011 against Carolina Dream, saying that he experienced no symptoms of aplastic anemia before his 2008 injury.

Mr. Ramirez contends that his condition was caused by an infection that resulted from a delay in treatment after his fall, records show. His claims were made under the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, known as the Jones Act, which provides a cause of action for negligence involving seamen.

In court filings, Mr. Ramirez argued that he is due “maintenance and cure” from Carolina Dream, which includes the cost of his food and lodging during his illness and reasonable medical expenses for his treatment, until he reaches maximum medical improvement.

The U.S. District Court in Boston rejected Mr. Ramirez’s claim in 2013, saying that Mr. Ramirez failed to show that his disease arose during his service for Carolina Dream. Mr. Ramirez appealed.

In a unanimous decision Monday, a three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Mr. Ramirez is due benefits for his maintenance and cure claims. The court found that he proved that he fell ill during his 2008 fishing trip and has remained sick since that time.

“Before that voyage, appellant had been working regularly and without symptoms, notwithstanding a history of hepatitis C,” the ruling reads.

Citing U.S. Supreme Court case law, the appeals court noted that a ship worker’s right to maintenance and cure “may outlast the voyage” even when “the efficient cause of the injury or illness was (not) some proven act” of the worker. Therefore, the court said, the issue is “not one of causation, but of timing: Did the illness for which the seaman seeks maintenance and cure begin or become aggravated while he was ‘serving the ship’?”

It “does not matter if an incapacitating illness pre-existed the seaman’s maritime employment, so long as the condition was not deliberately concealed or disabling when the seaman joined the ship’s service.”

The 1st Circuit noted that the impact of its decision “may be modest” because Carolina Dream already had paid maintenance and cure to Mr. Ramirez through the District Court’s judgment in August. While Mr. Ramirez contends that he has not yet reached maximum medical improvement, the appeals court said “the record on that issue is undeveloped.”

Mr. Ramirez’s case was remanded to District Court to find whether Carolina Dream has satisfied its obligation in paying Mr. Ramirez's benefits.