You probably know that people who work at sea don’t usually get workers’ compensation. The laws for workers’ compensation sit with the states, and the work you do at sea doesn’t fit under state laws. The result is that if you suffer any injuries or illnesses while you’re working at sea, your rights to maintenance and cure will most likely come from maritime law.

There’s no single maritime law that protects all the sailors, seamen and crew who work on the nation’s ships and oil rigs. Instead, maritime law refers to a whole body of related laws, as well as maritime “common law”—or the precedents set by key court opinions. Your right to maintenance and cure owes primarily to these common law decisions.

What are maintenance and cure?

Workers who get injured or sick while performing their duties may have the right to both maintenance and cure:

  • Maintenance refers to your daily living expenses. If you’re unable to work, maintenance is meant to help you pay for things like food and lodging.
  • Cure refers to your medical expenses. You have the right to seek medical treatment for the injuries or illnesses you suffer at work, and your employer should contribute to your cure.

Notably, both these rights may cease when your doctor says you’ve reached maximum recovery. For this reason, it’s often wise to see a doctor other than the one your employer provides.

What if an employer refuses to pay?

Few companies enjoy paying bills for people who aren’t actively working. As a result, some may claim that sick or injured workers have reached maximum medical recovery. Others may simply choose not to pay. Either way, it’s possible you might not get the maintenance and cure you deserve without a strong legal challenge. But if you can assert your rights, the courts have a history of supporting injured seamen:

  • In Atlantic Sounding Co. v Townsend, the United States Supreme Court ruled that seamen could seek punitive damages when their employers withhold maintenance and cure. Punitive damages often exceed the standard costs of maintenance and cure, so this ruling should encourage companies to pay in a timely fashion.
  • Seamen have also won maintenance and cure cases at the state level. For example, in 2013, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that companies seeking to prove that employees had reached maximum recovery needed to meet a higher burden of proof. If the seaman’s doctor and the company’s doctor offered competing opinions, the seaman should win the tie.

Examples such as these show how important precedent can be in maintenance and cure cases. And they reinforce how important it is to work with an attorney who has real experience with maritime law.

You have a right to recovery

As a maritime worker, you might not fall under workers’ compensation laws. But you still enjoy many of the same rights and protections as those who do. These include maintenance and cure, and the better you understand your rights, the more likely you’ll get the full recovery you deserve.