• Fifth Circuit Rejects Ruling In Favor of Jones Act Employer
  • September 4, 2013 | Authors: W. Brett Mason; Saul R. Newsome
  • Law Firm: Breazeale, Sachse & Wilson, L.L.P. - Baton Rouge Office
  • In Wallace Boudreaux v. Transocean Deepwater, Inc., decided on July 12, 2013, the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Jones Act employer has no right of restitution for the past benefits paid to a seaman who lied about pre-existing back problems while seeking employment with the employer.

    A. Background

    Wallace Boudreaux began working for Transocean in January, 2005. He failed to disclose serious back injuries in his pre-employment questionnaire by affirmatively answering "no" to several inquiries regarding history of back trouble. Less than five months after being hired plaintiff claimed injury to his back. Transocean paid him maintenance and cure for over five years.

    In 2008, plaintiff filed suit against Transocean for maintenance and cure, punitive damages, Jones Act negligence and unseaworthiness. During discovery Transocean obtained evidence of plaintiff's pre-employment back problems and filed and won a motion for summary judgment on plaintiff's claims for future benefits.

    Transocean filed a counter-claim to recover maintenance and cure payments and a motion for summary judgment claiming an automatic right to restitution under general maritime law. The trial court ruled for Transocean. Plaintiff appealed.

    B. Issue

    Whether a Jones Act employer who establishes that a seaman intentionally concealed a material medical condition causally related to his injury when seeking employment is automatically entitled to a judgment against the seaman for maintenance and cure benefits already paid.

    C. Discussion

    A seaman injured on the job enjoys a right to maintenance and cure - a small daily stipend to pay for food, lodging, and basic medical care. The right is intrinsic to the employment relationship and essentially unqualified: it cannot be contracted away by the seaman, does not depend on the fault of the employer, and is not reduced for the seaman's contributory negligence. However, a seaman can lose the right to maintenance and cure through gross misconduct including, but not limited to, fraudulently concealing a material pre-existing medical condition which is causally related to an injury later sustained.

    It is well established that when a Jones Act employer proves that a seaman fraudulently concealed a pre-existing material medical condition causally related to his injury the employer may offset Jones Act damages to the extent they duplicate maintenance and cure previously paid. Transocean sought to expand the power of an employer to allow an affirmative right of recovery against a seaman in such cases where no damages are recovered by the seaman, or where the award is insufficient to offset the seaman's restitution liability.

    The Fifth Circuit noted that because employers already enjoy the right to recoup paid benefits when the seaman is awarded damages there is no reason to afford employers an independent suit to secure affirmative recovery.

    D. Why is this important?

    1. The contents of a seaman's pre-employment questionnaire may provide valuable evidence an employer can use to terminate maintenance and cure benefits and offset Jones Act damages.

    2. Although a Jones Act employer may be entitled to an offset there is no automatic right to recover maintenance and cure payments even when there is an intentional concealment of material pre-existing medical conditions causally liked to a seaman's injury.

    3. Seaman should be mindful to accurately disclose information when completing a pre-employment questionnaire.

    4. Jones Act employers should review their standard practices to make sure that those seeking employment fully complete, sign, and date a pre-employment questionnaire.