The seaman complained of injuries to his neck and lower back after he was involved in an incident on January 18, 2022, near Chalmette, Louisiana on the Mississippi River. After the incident, the seaman underwent medical treatment at the vessel owner’s expense.
During treatment, the vessel owner conducted an “independent investigation” into the seaman’s medical background and allegedly discovered records of previous back and neck injuries, including: a 2010 trauma from a large pipe falling onto his head; a 2013 MRI revealing bulging cervical discs and stenosis after being pinned between the tires and the wheel of an 18-wheeler; and a 2014 lumbar disc herniation.
Throughout his 2021 hiring process with the vessel owner, the seaman did not disclose any of the above medical issues.
Since the January 18, 2022 incident, the vessel owner continued to pay maintenance and cure benefits to the seaman because it was required by law to do so. In general, seamen are entitled to maintenance and cure benefits when injured during their employment. Maintenance and cure benefits are available to seamen regardless of fault. Maintenance is a nominal daily fee paid to seamen to partially cover life expenses like room and board. Cure benefits are expenses associated with a seaman’s medical expenses. Vessel owners must pay injured seaman maintenance and cure unless they can prove, among other things, that the seaman failed to disclose injuries in his/her application for employment. This is referred to as the McCorpen defense. For a more detailed discussion about the McCorpen defense please check out my earlier post: https://www.adamdavislawfirm.com/post/court-dismisses-deckhand-s-maintenance-and-cure-claim-for-not-disclosing-pre-employment-injuries
Here, the vessel owner wanted to stop paying maintenance and cure benefits under McCorpen so it filed for declaratory judgment in New Orleans federal court asking the court to confirm it did not owe maintenance and cure benefits under the McCorpen defense Notably, the seaman sued the vessel owner in state court the very same day.
The seaman filed a motion to dismiss the declaratory judgment suit and attached his state-court complaint against the vessel owner. So, the court had to determine whether the declaratory judgment could proceed despite there being a pending state-court suit.
When deciding whether to dismiss a federal declaratory judgment action, courts apply the following three-part test:
whether the declaratory judgment action is justiciable;
Whether the court has the authority to grant declaratory relief; and
Whether the court should exercise its broad discretion over the matter.
See Orix Credit Alliance Inc. v. Wolfe, 212 F.3d 891, 895 (5th Cir. 2000).
The first prong considers a case for its “ripeness.” Ripeness demands a showing of plaintiff hardship. The court found that the seaman failed to brief this issue except for making a blanket statement that the declaratory suit was “premature.” The court ruled in favor of the vessel owner on this factor finding that its maintenance and cure obligation “presents sufficient hardship.”
As to prong two, the court quickly determined it possessed the authority to grant declaratory relief for maintenance and cure obligations. The court determined that it had original jurisdiction through 28 U.S.C. 1333, presenting no issue to its consideration of the declaratory judgment.
As to the final prong, the court stated, “whether the Court should exercise discretion over a matter, necessitates a careful and fact-driven analysis.” In the Fifth Circuit, the following six factors are considered when resolving this issue:
whether there is a pending state action in which all of the matters in controversy may be fully litigated
whether the plaintiff filed suit in anticipation of a lawsuit filed by the defendant,
whether the plaintiff engaged in forum shopping in bringing the suit,
whether possible inequities in allowing the declaratory plaintiff to gain precedence in time or to change forums exist, whether the federal court is a convenient forum for the parties and witnesses, and
whether retaining the lawsuit in federal court would serve the purposes of judicial economy
See St. Paul Co. v. Trejo, 39 F.3d 585, 590-591 (5th Cir. 1994).
The court addressed the Trejo factors and dived into the availability of declaratory actions for McCorpen defense cases. Based on its review of the pleadings, the court decided to deny the seaman’s motion to dismiss and confirmed it would (1) allow the vessel owner to conduct focused discovery on the McCorpen defense; and then (2) file a motion for summary judgment to confirm whether it no longer must pay maintenance and cure benefits based on the application of the McCorpen defense.
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A publicly available copy of the opinion can be accessed by clicking on the following link: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/USCOURTS-laed-2_22-cv-01509/pdf/USCOURTS-laed-2_22-cv-01509-0.pdf