By Dorie Cox
A yacht chef sued the owner of the yacht after his request to recover about $4,000 for emergency hernia surgery in Cuba was denied. Instead, a judge awarded him more than $1 million.
A U.S. federal judge in South Florida cited general maritime law when he ordered the owner to pay for pain and suffering, as well as punitive damages, because of the yacht’s failure to pay maintenance and cure for the chef. The verdict was reached after a three-day nonjury trial in U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida in late May. The Triton learned of the case through the plaintiff’s attorney, who shared details on the condition of anonymity of those involved.
Chain of events lead to court
According to the findings of the court, the chef began to experience pain during a private trip through the Caribbean in 2017. When he first began to feel ill, the chef alerted the captain. When the yacht got to port the next day, the chef went to a doctor who told him he needed surgery for a strangulated hernia. The following day, the chef traveled alone in a taxi to the nearest hospital in Havana three hours away. The hospital attempted unsuccessfully to contact the yacht’s insurance company and would not perform the surgery without $1,000 payment, which the chef did not have.
“For reasons that are unclear, however, the insurer never made contact with the hospital,” according to court documents.
The chef reportedly sat in pain in the hospital waiting room until, on the second day, he was transferred to a public hospital that would do the surgery without payment upfront. Eventually, 18 days after the initial request for coverage, the yacht’s insurance company responded, suggesting the chef provide a detailed list of expenses when he arrived home in Fort Lauderdale.
After three weeks of convalescence, the captain did not allow the chef to return to the yacht or offer money to repatriate him. The chef told The Triton that he got by with help from his friends, who sent him money to cover his expenses and the cost of a flight home.
Back at home in the United States, the chef sent the insurer an itemized list of his expenses in Cuba with attached receipts. He continued for several weeks to unsuccessfully seek coverage from the yacht’s insurance company. Eventually, the insurer advised the chef that it would not provide maintenance and cure for his expenses once back home in the U.S., and the chef was never paid by the company. After repeated attempts to recover money from the insurance company and yacht, the chef filed a lawsuit.
This year, the court calculated the chef’s maintenance and cure at more than $63,000, unearned wages at more than $10,000, and pain and suffering at more than $373,000. Damages totaled more than $747,000, and with prejudgement interest equaled just over $780,000, plus attorney fees.
“After we threatened to arrest the yacht at the Fort Lauderdale boat show to satisfy the judgment, they agreed to pay $1.2 million to satisfy the judgment, including our attorney’s fees and costs,” Clay M. Naughton, attorney and partner with Moore & Co. in Coral Gables, Florida, who represented the chef, told The Triton.
Crew rights paramount
There are several points that are important for yacht captains and crew to understand about both yacht and crew rights, according to Naughton.
The judge’s decision was based on the yacht’s obligation to pay maintenance and cure, as well as unearned wages, until the crew member had reached maximum medical improvement, which is considered the point at which no further treatment can better the crew member’s condition. Maintenance covers day-to-day living expenses and cure covers medical costs. The unearned wages are measured from the time of the incapacity until the end of the employment contract. And the law states that ambiguities are to be resolved in favor of the injured crew member.
This law is taken seriously by the courts, Naughton said. “Crew are protected. Owners and captains should be aware of this. The penalties are severe.”
The whole idea of mandatory maintenance and cure goes back to ancient maritime common law, and if crew are abandoned, the yacht will be held accountable, Naughton said. “Owners and captains, beware – treat sick crew correctly.”
Typically, most yacht owners or their companies are aware of such laws and generally take care of their crew on board, Naughton said.
“I think the point is that $4,000 can become $1.2 million,” Naughton said.
Clarify yachts requirements
Although the Marshall Island-flagged yacht did not require crew members to undergo pre-employment medical examinations, the yacht captain said he typically requested that crew present valid medical certificates. But when the Marshall Island flag state surveyor inspected crew documentation, he found that three of the five crew members – including the captain and chef – did not have valid medical certificates while the 100-foot yacht was in the Caribbean.
Although it was not required on the yacht, the chef’s ENG-1, a medical certificate issued by a doctor approved by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, was brought up in court as a medical record. The certificate had expired in 2012. When it was issued in 2010, the doctor had diagnosed the chef with an inguinal (groin) hernia and added two restrictions on the certificate: The chef could not lift more than 25 pounds and could not work more than 200 miles from the coast. Court documents state that the chef never experienced any symptoms from the hernia diagnosed in 2010 during his various yacht jobs since then.
Both the doctor who issued the medical certificate and the chef’s primary care doctor said the original inguinal hernia was unrelated to the umbilical hernia that brought about the surgery in Cuba. The presence of one does not indicate the presence of the other, the doctors testified. The chef’s primary care doctor also testified that he had examined him two months before this job began and there was no umbilical hernia at that time.
Nevertheless, the yacht owner’s defense attorneys used a precedent known as the McCorpen defense, which states that if a crew member were to purposely conceal or fail to disclose a medical condition, the yacht owner would not have to pay maintenance and cure in the case of an incident. The yacht owner claimed to not be responsible because the chef did not disclose a pre-existing hernia condition that led to his injury while at sea.
Court papers describe concealment as when “the shipowner requires a seaman to submit to a pre-hiring medical examination or interview and the seaman intentionally misrepresents or conceals material medical facts.” Nondisclosure occurs in cases where the “shipowner does not require a pre-employment medical examination or interview.” In those cases, “the rule is that a seaman must disclose a past illness or injury only when in his own opinion the shipowner would consider it a matter of importance.”
The court ruled that this case falls into the nondisclosure rather than concealment category, Naughton said.
“There was no medical exam in this case, and the crew only needed, in his own subjective mind, to disclose if he thought it would affect his position,” Naughton said. “On the other hand, if you lie, then the court will hold you to a certain standard.”
Aim for prevention of incidents
The captain said he learned a few lessons.
“I was not strong on documents and we didn’t follow the insurance properly,” he said. “We thought we had a strong defense.”
What would have prevented this lawsuit? If the yacht had followed maritime law and paid for medical expenses in Cuba and helped while the chef was there, Naughton said. Under the law, the chef was also entitled to a daily stipend for room and board; for wages through the end of his contract or trip, whichever is longer; and to be repatriated to his home port or the port where he was picked up.
As for the chef, he said he is proud of his 23-year career as a yacht chef and disappointed in the way he was treated. He would have preferred to avoid legal action.
“Now my career is ruined,” he said. “Once you sue, you are done. I did not win.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.