The recent ruling in Double J. Marine, LLC v. Matthew Nuber, No. 13-5825 (E.D. La. Dec. 11, 2013) serves as a key reminder that employers need to be mindful that courts scrutinize release agreements as seamen are the wards of the admiralty court, whose rights federal courts are duty-bound to jealously protect.
Double J. Marine, LLC employee Matthew Nuber, a seaman, injured his back on March 8, 2013, while working, and was brought to the emergency room. The emergency room physician diagnosed Nuber with a pulled muscle, and told him not to work, and to follow-up in a week. Nuber returned to the emergency room approximately a week later, where a different emergency room physician re-examined him, determined he was able to return to work, and discharged him. Importantly, neither physician was a specialist, such as an orthopedist or a neurologist, nor did the physicians perform or order any diagnostic testing.
The same day Nuber was discharged, he met the claims adjuster retained by Double J at a nearby gas station, who presented Nuber with a Receipt, Release, and Hold Harmless Agreement. The adjuster read and explained the terms of the Release to Nuber, who had only a 10th grade education. Nuber said he understood and agreed with the terms, and executed the Release without consulting an attorney or another physician.
Nuber returned to full duty work the next day, but a month later he started experiencing back pain again. Double J placed him on light duty and offered for him to be examined by an orthopedic surgeon. That surgeon diagnosed Nuber with herniated discs related to the March 8 incident and recommended surgery. Soon after, Nuber made demand on Double J for maintenance and cure benefits.
Double J filed a declaratory judgment to determine the enforceability of the Release, and later filed a summary judgment seeking an order to enforce the Release. However, Judge Martin Feldman denied the motion. Nuber was able to raise issues of material fact indicating he did not execute the Release freely with a full understanding of his rights. Judge Feldman pointed out that Nuber did not undergo any diagnostic testing at the hospital, and the emergency room physicians did not refer him to a specialist. Accordingly, Judge Feldman determined that Nuber may not have been informed or understood his rights in the nature of the legal and medical advice available to him. See also Garrett v. Moore-McCormack Co.; Borne v. A&P Boat Rentals No. 4 Inc.
This point is one that is important for employers to take into account when trying to settle claims — has the seaman received adequate medical advice for the type of injury sustained so that he is informed and understands the consequences of signing a Release?