A vessel owner’s liability for the maintenance, cure, and wages of “a seaman [who] falls sick, or is wounded, in the service of the ship” derives from “ancient codes of the sea promulgated as far back as 1200 A.D.”  Historically, those remedies were afforded to mariners to encourage them to embark on dangerous voyages and because they were “generally poor and friendless, and acquire[d] habits of gross indulgence, carelessness, and improvidence.”  Traditionally, the remedy is construed expansively to provide mariners with an incentive to make their life on the sea “despite its many intrinsic perils.”  In days gone by, as a practical matter, requiring a vessel owner to take responsibility for a seaman’s “health with vigilance and fidelity” also “diminishe[d] the [seaman’s] temptation to plunderage upon the approach of sickness.”
In modern times, the seaman’s lot has “improved considerably” as “union contracts may guarantee sailors a host of benefits, including overtime and premium pay, vacation allowances, disability pensions, and various amenities, including televisions and washers and dryers.”  Nevertheless, a seaman’s entitlement to maintenance and cure has been diligently guarded by the courts. Defense against claims of bad-faith failure to pay maintenance and cure remains a significant part of the maritime personal injury practice, and there is indication that some courts may resist recognizing defined limits on the amount of recoverable punitive damages, thus increasing monetary exposure for improper handling of benefit claims.  This Article will consider recent decisions interpreting the rights and duties of seamen and vessel owners in the maintenance and cure arena and what those cases reveal about the scope of the duty of the vessel owner today and the perils of breaching that duty.

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