What Is 'Maintenance and Cure' In a Maritime Injury Case?

Injured maritime workers may be entitled to payment of certain expenses while recovering from injury.

Updated by , J.D. ● University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated 4/01/2024

If you're a commercial fisherman, merchant seaman, or other "seafaring" employee, you've probably heard of "maintenance and cure." In this article, we'll explain when and how an injured maritime worker might receive these kinds of benefits from their employer, the kinds of expenses that qualify (and don't qualify) as maintenance and cure, and more.

The Basics of "Maintenance and Cure" In Maritime Law

A centuries-old concept, "maintenance and cure" refers to the day-to-day benefits that a maritime employee receives during the course of their recovery from injury or illness.

Maintenance and cure benefits are typically available to the worker regardless of what caused their injury, as long as they were in service of the employer at the time they were hurt or became ill. And it's worth noting that the employee still has rights to bring legal action over their injuries or illness, including through:

What Are an Injured Seaman's "Maintenance" Benefits?

Historically, the concept of "maintenance" originated from the employer's obligation to provide room and board to an injured or ill seaman who couldn't serve the vessel, but needed to remain on board. These days, "maintenance" also applies to an injured or ill seaman who is recuperating on shore, whether at home or elsewhere.

Maintenance benefits are usually limited to "necessary household expenses," so that typically means the employee's:

Maintenance benefits probably don't include things like:

  • bills for cable/internet/streaming services
  • car payments, and
  • gasoline.

What Are an Injured Seaman's "Cure" Benefits?

"Cure" includes the injured seaman's "reasonable and necessary" medical expenses incurred while they're recovering, along with the cost of transportation for getting to necessary medical appointments. The idea here is that, just like an injured land-based employee who receives workers' compensation benefits, an injured seaman shouldn't have to pay for treatment of an injury that occurred while in service to their employer.

How Long Can an Injured Seaman Receive Maintenance and Cure?

An injured seaman is entitled to receive maintenance and cure until they've either:

  • fully recovered from their injuries, or
  • reached a point of maximum medical improvement (MMI), meaning they're as good as they're going to get (they might not have fully recovered from their injuries, but they're not expected to improve any further).

How Is Maintenance and Cure Paid?

Typically, the employer or the employer's insurer will pay maintenance weekly or bi-weekly.

The employer usually pays cure benefits by paying the injured seaman's medical bills directly, as they come in.

What Is The Proper Rate of Maintenance?

For decades, maritime employers and insurers were accustomed to paying a trivial amount of maintenance—something like $8 to $10 per day (around $240 to $300 per month), regardless of the seaman's actual living expenses.

Luckily, court decisions have made it clear that maritime employers can't get away with this kind of shortchanging. These days, maintenance must usually equal the seaman's actual household expenses. If, for example, the seaman lives in a high-cost area where household expenses approach $3,000 per month, then that's the right maintenance rate for that particular seaman.

Union Membership May Affect a Seaman's Maintenance Rate

There's one key exception to the rule that a seaman's maintenance rate is actual household expenses: when a seaman is a member of a labor union, and the union contract contains a maintenance rate that covers all union members.

So, if you're a seaman covered by a union contract, and the contract says that injured union members will receive $1,000 per month for maintenance, then that's your maintenance rate, as negotiated by your union.

However, there may be an exception to that exception. The union contract maintenance rule only applies in certain parts of the country. Different federal courts have interpreted this rule differently. If you're a maritime union member who wants to know whether your union contract maintenance rate governs your situation, contact a maritime personal injury lawyer for advice that's tailored to your situation.

Maintenance and Cure Is For Illnesses as Well as Injuries

Maintenance and cure applies to illnesses as well as injuries. If you're a seaman and you come down with a disabling illness or medical condition while "in service to a vessel," you're entitled to maintenance and cure until you reach MMI from that condition, even if that illness or condition wasn't caused by your work or service on the vessel.

Can "Maintenance and Cure" Be Withheld From an Injured Worker?

It's rare, but in some situations an injured crewmember or other type of seaman might be barred from receiving maintenance and cure, including when the worker:

  • failed to disclose a pre-existing injury or disability during a pre-employment examination, or
  • intentionally concealed a pre-existing medical condition related to their present illness or injury.

Note that if the employer tries to make these arguments, and it turns out they're not true (or not provable), the injured worker might be able to receive punitive damages against the employer.

What If My Maritime Employer Won't Pay Maintenance and Cure?

The law requires a maritime employer to pay maintenance and cure as it comes due, but that doesn't always happen. If you're a seaman who was injured on the job, and you're not receiving the maintenance and cure benefits you're owed, it might be time to discuss your situation with a qualified maritime personal injury lawyer, and make sure your rights are protected.

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