Vaughan v. Atkinson

LOCATION: Vilage of Kake

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1962)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 369 US 527 (1962)
ARGUED: Mar 22, 1962
DECIDED: May 14, 1962

Facts of the case

The general maritime law of the United States has long obliged ship owners to indemnify seamen against expenses of injury or illness suffered while on the job aboard ship. An ill or injured seaman is entitled to "maintenance and cure," that is, to compensation by his employer for the expenses of his medical treatment and subsistence (i.e., room and board) while convalescing ashore. (Until 1982, a seaman could obtain free medical attention from the US Public Health Service. In such a case, the USPHS effectively relieved the seaman's employer of the duty of cure.)

At discharge, after two voyages on S.S. National Liberty, seaman Clifford Vaughan got a hospitalization certificate from the master, N.J. Atkinson. Vaughan then spent three months in a USPHS hospital and two years as an outpatient undergoing treatment for tuberculosis. The ship owner ignored Vaughan's request for maintenance as an outpatient. For a while before obtaining clearance to return to duty, Vaughan worked ashore as a cab driver. Later, he sued unsuccessfully in federal district court for maintenance and for damages from the ship owner's failure to promptly pay, including his attorney's fees. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed.


1. Did the district court err in offsetting Vaughan's possible recovery by the income earned as a cab driver?

2. Is the shipowner liable for attorney's fees?

Media for Vaughan v. Atkinson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 22, 1962 in Vaughan v. Atkinson

Earl Warren:

Number 323, Clifford Vaughan, Petitioner, versus N.J. Atkinson, et al.

Jacob L. Morewitz:

Mr. Chief Justice and Your Honors.

Earl Warren:

Mr. Morewitz.

Jacob L. Morewitz:

This is a case here on certiorari -from the Fourth Circuit involving a seaman in the characterization of Mr. Justice Story awarded the admiralty.

The uniqueness is that seldom the case of this import require the intervention or intervent -- interposition as some people might call it of this Honorable Court.

There are two questions involved and set forth in our petition, two principal questions, whether or not maintenance is the sto -- is designed to restore post-earnings of itself and the right to maintenance whether it should be unaffected by the incidental earning at shore while the seaman is a patient under treatment, unfit to do seaman's work.

And there's a second point as to where a shipowner for 23 months has held by both courts below at least in the minority opinion refers to the finding of fact which are conclusive both on the court below and this Court unless the Court goes back to the earlier theory of a new trial both in the Court of Appeals and here in an admiralty case where the shipowner refuses to pay maintenance for 23 months to a sick seaman and for -- thereby forcing the seaman to go to the trouble of an expensive in -- instituting a suit, obtaining a decree of the admiralty court for his maintenance during these 23 months period.

We say that the shipowner cannot escape paying damages merely because the seaman eventually gets well.

And in that, we are supported by the opinion of Chief Judge Sobeloff who wrote the minority orders sending opinion in the court below.

Vaughan, the seaman in this case, had been employed aboard the vessel on two previous voyages and -- where he's paid off on March the 2nd, 1957.

It's important to keep the dates in mind to show these 23 months dereliction as the trial court on the part of the shipowner for which the seaman was only recompensed to the extent of interest on the weekly payments, they should've had all during these 23 months of delay.

And incidentally, some six months of the final payment was made after the libel was filed.

The case was in court and the trial judge had to take the matter up on two separate occasions before the final payments were made.

Now, the -- when the man was discharged, he was given a certificate to enter the marine hospital at Norfolk (ph) which he did on March the 7th and he was examined on that day and told to come back on March the 18th.

Potter Stewart:

The voyage had ended at the time he was discharged?

Jacob L. Morewitz:

The voyage -- the particular trip now -- Your Honors in a case some years ago divided on the question of whether or not the provision, the usual provision in a foreign voyage of a six -- termination, no less than six months or no more than six months rather.

Some of Your Honors minority opinion there held that the six months provision prevailed and the majority I think it was a five-four decisions.

The majority held that it terminated as Your Honor suggested, when the trip was over, he was paid off and got a discharge from the ship no matter what the article might have called for with regard to a minimum period.

In this case, he received his wages on March the 2nd and then given the certificate entitling him without any cost to either the vessel or to the man to be en -- to enter and be treated at the marine hospital that's covered by a fund that's created out of some of the taxes that the shipowner has to pay in entering and clearing the customs on foreign voyages.

Now, the man entered the hospital as I've suggested on March the 18th, 1957 and was under treatment until June the 6th, 1957.

And during that period under the law, he could not recover any maintenance because he received his board and lodging while he was in the hospital.

But immediately upon leaving the hospital, under the principles enunciated during the day of the (Inaudible), they started the -- the status of the seaman as I've said of being awarded the admiralty because primarily in those days, he couldn't recover.

They were killed, there were no death statutes and the -- in most instances, couldn't recover even for an unseaworthy vessel.

That doctrine came along a hundred years after.

But he -- from time immemorial got maintenance and cure and that's been thought or furthered away to some extent by the last principles that have been announced that they -- if he can't be cured, if he's beyond cure, then they -- the harsh rule is that the shipowner's liability stops that he -- the only time that the shipowner has to enforce to pay is when there is some possibility of his recovery.

And he must establish that he has been in the employ of the vessel when this injury or the sickness occurred.

And that's entirely separate apart from what Your Honors have heard under the Jones Act and under the unseaworthy doctrine as to the liability of the shipowner for damages or any negligent or injury whether willful or not or whether it's a -- as a result of the unseaworthiness of the vessel.

But this doctrine --

Potter Stewart:

All you have to show is that the injury or illness or incapacity --

Jacob L. Morewitz: