QCR Winter 2021: Witbart v Mandara SPA (Hawaii), LLC – 28.09.2021
Courts not required to construe disputed medical evidence in seamen's favor in maintenance and cure cases.
The plaintiff, Sarabeth Witbart, filed suit against Mandara Spa under the Jones Act and General Maritime Law for failure to provide maintenance and cure for the condition in her neck and spine. The lower court determined that Mandara Spa had proven the McCorpen defense. The McCorpen defense to a maintenance and cure claim is that the seafarer intentionally concealed and/or misrepresented pertinent medical facts and the undisclosed facts would have materially impacted the employer's hiring decision, and there is a connection between the seafarer's injury and the undisclosed information (1). The district court found against Ms Witbart on all of these elements.
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The Court rejected the plaintiff's argument that pursuant to Vaughan v. Atkinson, 369 U.S. 527 (1962), courts hearing maintenance cases are required to construe disputed medical evidence in the seaman's favor. The Court stated that Vaughan v Atkinson resolved an ambiguity in favor of a seafarer regarding the amount of maintenance and cure owed by the shipowner, but not all ambiguities. The Court also affirmed that the standard in McCorpen was the correct standard to apply.
This case is a good reminder of the McCorpen defense, a defense which is critical for defendants to assert whenever possible in maintenance and cure cases. Moreover, while this decision was unpublished, it is noteworthy as it provides an important angle for a defendant to respond to a seafarer’s inevitable argument that disputed evidence should be resolved in the seafarer’s favor.
(1) McCorpen v. Central Gulf S.S. Corp., 396 F.2d 547 (5th Cir. 1968)
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