5th Circuit Decision in Meche v Doucet and Key Marine
In maritime law, a Jones Act or seaman’s employer is obligated to pay maintenance (a daily allowance for food and lodging) and cure (medical care expenses) for a seaman injured or ill in the service of a vessel. A defense to this obligation is when a seaman intentionally misrepresents or conceals medical information about his or her condition when applying for employment. This is known as the “McCorpen defense”.
On January 22, 2015, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the decision of a Lafayette federal district court trial judge in the case of Meche v Doucet and Key Marine. In the trial court, the judge awarded the plaintiff seaman maintenance and cure as well as punitive damages, attorney’s fees, costs, and pre- and post-judgment interest for his claim of injury. In vacating that judgment and reversing the ruling in favor of the employer, the Fifth Circuit concluded the McCorpen defense would apply and precluded the seaman from obtaining maintenance and cure benefits. Decisive to the lower court’s decision was it found the employer, Key Marine Services, did not require this injured seaman to undergo a pre-employment examination or interview. The Fifth Circuit, however, emphasized that Key Marine decided to retain the seaman after it acquired the company that was his original employer, Moncla Marine; and, because Moncla Marine had required that the seaman undergo a pre-employment medical examination with a questionnaire, Key Marine was entitled to rely on the prior medical examination done for Moncla Marine when deciding to retain the seaman after it acquired Moncla. The Fifth Circuit concluded Key was entitled to the benefit of the McCorpen defense based on the misrepresentations Meche made in his employment application to Moncla. Here, they found seaman Meche had “intentionally misrepresented or concealed medical facts” vis-à-vis Moncla. Additionally, it noted the seaman defended his concealment by testifying he later verbally told Moncla information that was concealed on the medical questionnaire. Significantly, the Fifth Circuit Court held “if a seaman intentionally provides false information on a pre-employment medical questionnaire and certifies that the information therein is true and correct, that seaman may not later argue that his concealment was not intentional based on his statement, which the employer disputes, that he verbally disclosed medical information that contradicted the written questionnaire.”
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