Tug Operator Ordered to Pay Injured Deckhand’s Attorney’s Fees and Punitive Damages for Willful Failure to Pay Maintenance and Cure

Ciro Charles Hicks was serving as a deckhand on the Tug PATRIOT, operated by Vane Line Bunkering, Inc., when he injured his shoulder while handling heavy towing gear.  About two months later, following a diagnosis of a possible rotator cuff tear, and failure of a cortisone injection to relieve his pain, Hicks underwent surgery on his shoulder.  Afterwards, he underwent several months of physical therapy, yet continued to have significant pain in his shoulder.  Five months after the surgery, Hicks told his treating physician he still had limited range of motion of his arm.

Vane Line put Hicks under surveillance.  The investigator obtained video of Hicks planting a small tree and playing with his grandson.  In response to Hicks’ doctor’s request for Vane Line to approve an additional MRI scan, Vane Line showed the doctor the surveillance video and a document purporting to show that Hicks’ job as a deckhand only required light lifting–something Vane Line later conceded was inaccurate.  Based on the video and the incorrect work requirements document, this physician opined Hicks was fit to return to work.  Vane Line then terminated Hicks’ maintenance and cure payments.

Vane Line Bunkering, Inc.'s Tug PATRIOT

Vane Line Bunkering, Inc.’s Tug PATRIOT

Hicks then saw a second doctor, who diagnosed a recurrent rotator cuff tear.  The second doctor recommended another surgery followed by six months of physical therapy to repair the additional shoulder damage. Because of the maintenance rate Vane Line had been paying him before it cut off maintenance, $15 per day, versus his actual food and lodging costs of $69.67 per day, Hicks felt compelled to return to work, even though the second physician had told him his shoulder was still injured.  Severe financial difficulties caused Hicks to miss some of his physical therapy appointments, his house was foreclosed upon, and he was unable to pay for health insurance.

Hicks then sued Vane Line in federal court.  As reported previously on this blog, the jury found in favor of his employer on Hicks’ Jones Act negligence and general maritime law unseaworthiness claims, but for Hicks on his general maritime law maintenance and cure claim.  The jury found Vane Line breached its general maritime law maintenance obligation to Hicks by paying him an insufficient daily maintenance rate and for prematurely cutting-off maintenance.  The jury verdict included $77,000 in compensatory damages for past maintenance and cure, $16,000 in future maintenance, $97,000 in future cure, and $132,000 to compensate for past pain and suffering.  The jury also found the employer’s failure to pay maintenance and cure unreasonable and willful and included in its verdict an additional $123,000 in punitive damages. Based on the jury’s finding of willfulness, the district court, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d), granted Hicks an additional $112,083.77 in attorney’s fees.

Recently, in Hicks v. Tug PATRIOT, 2015 WL 1740383 (2d Cir. Apr. 17, 2015), the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment in its entirety.  It found the jury’s findings as to the culpability of Vane Line’s conduct and the damages caused Hicks were entitled to deference, and that Hicks was also entitled, due to Vane Line’s willful conduct, to both attorney’s fees and punitive damages.  The appeals court found support for its decision in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404, 129 S.Ct. 2561, 174 L.Ed.2d 382 (2009), in which the Court ruled that punitive damages are available to a seaman under the general maritime law for an employer’s willful failure to pay maintenance and cure.

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Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, regularly brings claims for negligence under the Jones Act and unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure under the general maritime law on behalf of commercial vessel crewmembers, both men and women, such as deckhands, mates, cooks, engineers, pilots, and captains.  If you have questions about this court opinion, or your or your family’s legal rights under admiralty and maritime law, contact us for a free consultation at 877-404-6529 (toll-free), 412-281-4340, or info@golawllc.com.  Our website is www.golawllc.com.  We practice primarily in PA, WV, and OH, but also all over the inland waterways.

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