Published: June 9, 2014
By: Frederick B. Goldsmith
In Stermer v. Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., 2014 WL 25153872014 (La. App. 3d Cir. June 4, 2014), American River Transportation Company (ARTCO) employed Adrienne Stermer as a cook on its towboat. About two weeks into her hitch, while the towboat was facing up to its tow and Stermer was in the galley, kneeling before an open refrigerator, cleaning a steak sauce tray, the vessel’s movements caused her to lose her balance and fall forward. Apparently no one warned her to “watch the bump.” Stermer tried to steady herself by grabbing a shelf inside the refrigerator, but her fingers went through the rack and her right hand was pushed backward. Her knees hit the floor. She tried to use her left hand to brace herself for the fall, but instead rolled onto her right ankle. Nevertheless, she got herself up, brushed herself off, and returned to work. While she had pain and swelling in her hands and right ankle, she just took Advil. Stermer testified she was afraid to report her accident for fear of being fired. But, five days later, when her hands and right ankle continued to swell and she could no longer tie her shoes, Stermer reported her injuries to the boat’s engineer, who informed the pilot. Stermer then completed an ARTCO accident report.
Three days later, ARTCO put Stermer ashore in Paducah, Kentucky, and to a hospital there. The history of her injuries that Stermer gave to medical personnel at Western Baptist Hospital was consistent with what she had told the engineer and what she had written in her accident report. The ER physician diagnosed bilateral hand and wrist sprains and a right ankle sprain, and prescribed antiinflammatories, pain medication, and an air cast for Stermer’s right ankle. She then returned to her towboat, tried to work, but was relieved, and sent home to Louisiana.
Later, the vessel’s captain and a deckhand testified they were in the galley when Stermer claimed to have been hurt, that there were two bumps during the facing-up, but they did not see her fall into the refrigerator. Just five days after Stermer reported her accident, ARTCO sent Stermer a letter asserting her “recent complaints did not manifest itself [sic] in the service of the vessel” and that it would not pay her maintenance and cure. Three days later, ARTCO sent Stermer another letter, this time to fire her. It wrote her “willful disregard for the truth … demonstrated an unacceptable standard of conduct.”
A hand surgery specialist in Louisiana continued to treat Stermer, at first conservatively, but then with surgery, to repair a scapholunate dissociation. This is a tear in the ligament between the scaphoid and lunate bones in the wrist. This surgeon found Stermer’s injury was not preexisting. ARTCO obtained an “IME,” or “independent medical opinion,” from an orthopedic surgeon who opined the injury was present before the accident aboard the towboat. ARTCO, despite being kept continuously apprised of Stermer’s medical course, and despite Stermer’s demands for maintenance and cure, including a request to pay for her surgery, refused to pay maintenance and cure for two and a half years. It delayed approving the surgery for 27 months, even though its IME physician agreed Stermer needed the surgery.
Stermer brought claims in state court against ARTCO for negligence under the Jones Act and, under the general maritime law, for unseaworthiness, maintenance and cure, and retaliatory discharge. At trial, the judge awarded Stermer on her Jones Act negligence claim nearly $100,000 for lost employee benefits, $337,000 in lost wages, and $200,000 for pain and suffering. The court also found ARTCO’s refusal to pay Stermer maintenance and cure for two and a half years “arbitrary and capricious” and assessed an additional $300,000 in punitive damages and $150,000 in attorney’s fees. The court found she had not proved her unseaworthiness and retaliatory discharge claims.
ARTCO appealed only the punitive damages and attorney’s fee aspects of the trial court’s judgment. The Louisiana appellate court described the seaman’s maintenance and cure claim under the general maritime law, the deferential standard under which it is to be judged, and the consequences maritime employers face when they callously disregard their maintenance and cure obligation.
The appeals court in its opinion wrote how maintenance and cure “is an ancient duty imposed upon the owner of a ship to provide food, lodging and necessary medical services to seamen who become ill or injured during service to the ship” and how “[r]ecovery is not dependent upon negligence of the vessel or the owner and the burden of proof in seeking maintenance and cure is relatively light.” To win a maintenance and cure claim, “a seaman need only prove that the injury arose during his service of the vessel” and the seaman does not even have to prove his or her duties caused the injury.
Continuing, the appeals court noted that while an employer is entitled to investigate a seaman’s claim for maintenance and cure, to rely on recognized defenses to deny benefits when appropriate, and to require corroboration of the claim, the employer cannot be “lax” in its investigation. Further, the court wrote, “when an employer’s investigation of a seaman’s claim reveals that doubts or ambiguities exist as to whether the seaman is entitled to maintenance and cure, they are resolved in favor of the seaman.” “If an employer fails to properly investigate a claim for maintenance and cure or unreasonably rejects a claim after investigating the claim, the employer may be liable for compensatory damages that are a consequence of the failure to pay maintenance and cure. … The employer may also be liable for punitive damages and attorney fees if it is ‘more egregiously at fault’ in denying a proper claim for maintenance and cure. … This higher degree of fault has been explained as ‘callous and recalcitrant, arbitrary and capricious, or willful, callous and persistent.’ … An employer’s failure or refusal to consider the medical evidence of an injury or illness submitted by a seaman in support of his claim for maintenance and cure is grounds for concluding the employer’s failure to institute maintenance and cure is arbitrary and willful.”
The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s $300,000 punitive damages award for willful failure to timely pay maintenance and cure, but sent the case back to the trial court to develop further evidence on the lower court’s attorney’s fee award. It found ARTCO “considered only evidence that indicated the incident Ms. Stermer reported did not occur before denying her claim for maintenance and cure,” yet disregarded seven key facts that supported the validity of Stermer’s maintenance and cure claim. The appeals court held: “The totality of the evidence leads to the conclusion that once ARTCO had evidence that no accident occurred, it did not consider evidence corroborating Ms. Stermer’s claim that she was injured October 9. Under these facts, we find that ARTCO’s investigation of Ms. Stermer’s claim was neither diligent nor reasonable and, therefore, find no manifest error in the trial court’s conclusion that ARTCO was arbitrary and capricious in denying Ms. Stermer’s claim.” The appeals court also tacked-onto the judgment $10,000 for Stermer’s attorney’s fees on appeal.