11th Circuit Finds Not All Disputed Medical Evidence Must be Construed in a Seaman’s Favor

Liskow & Lewis

On Tuesday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit addressed the question of whether the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court holding in Vaughan v. Atkinson, 369 U.S. 527 (1962) requires courts hearing maintenance and cure cases to construe disputed medical evidence in the seaman’s favor. In Witbart v. Mandara Spa (Hawaii), LLC, the appellant seaman brought claims under the Jones Act and general maritime law for failure to pay maintenance and cure related to certain bodily injuries.  The defendant successfully proved its affirmative McCorpen defense and was held not liable. The seaman’s counsel argued for a very broad interpretation of Vaughn on appeal arguing that any time there was a conflict of opinion between a seaman’s doctor and another doctor, the seaman’s doctor should be deferred to and the employer’s doctor disregarded. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit held that Vaughan does not require courts hearing maintenance and cure cases to construe all disputed medical evidence in the seaman’s favor. The court noted that to expand Vaughan’s limited scope to resolve all ambiguities in medical evidence in favor of every seaman would strip district courts of their ability to make credibility determinations when confronted with conflicting evidence.  Witbart v. Mandara Spa (Hawaii), LLC, 20-13449, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 29285 (11th Cir. Sept. 28, 2021). This decision is in accord with a Fifth Circuit decision which held that even under the Vaughn rule, it is not per se unreasonable for an employer to terminate maintenance and cure (which could subject the employer to punitive damages) where there is a difference of opinion between a treating physician and another physician. The Fifth Circuit thus similarly held that Vaughn does not provide an absolute rule of deference to the seaman’s treating physician. MNM Boats, Inc. v. Johnson, 248 F.3d 1139 (5th Cir. 2001).

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