Burden Of Proof On Shipowner

Burden Of Proof On Shipowner To Prove Unequivocally That Seaman Did Not Need Surgery Where Two Doctors Had A Difference Of Opinion On The Need For Surgery

Luigi Malta was injured while working on a ship owned by the Defendant United States of America. After plaintiff Malta received treatment, defendant USA’s doctor declared that Mr. Malta had achieved maximum medical cure. A second doctor disagreed as to no further medical care being needed and recommended a second operation on plaintiff’s knee. Plaintiff sued, seeking maintenance and cure benefits based on the second opinion as to the need for surgery.

The case was tried to the court in Malta v the United States 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4769 (March 30, 2001). Both doctors testified during the bench trial. The court found that both were credible and that they simply had a difference of opinion.

Thus, relying on defendant’s burden to prove unequivocally that plaintiff had reached the maximum medical cure, the court found for plaintiff. Plaintiff’s expert testified that he hoped a second surgery on plaintiff’s knee would both alleviate plaintiff’s pain and improve the functioning of plaintiff’s knee. Since the surgery was not to be merely palliative, plaintiff was entitled to receive maintenance and cure.

Equally strong evidence supported each party’s position; thus, the outcome turned on who bore the burden of proof. The burden, and thus the loss, fell on defendant.

The principals applied in this decision are extremely important both to ship owners and to seaman. A seaman should get a second opinion from another doctor in those situations where he or she feels that they have not made a satisfactory recovery. Ship owners and employers of seaman should follow the suggestions of the doctor giving the second opinion even if they disagree with the primary doctors opinion. Cruise ship lawyers note that a ship owner that willfully and arbitrarily fails to provide a seaman with full maintenance and cure could be liable for the seaman’s attorney’s fees and in some jurisdictions, punitive damages.