Washington Court of Appeals Rejects American Seafoods’ Appeal

In Mai v. American Seafoods Company, 2011 Wash. App. LEXIS 615 (2011), our law firm represented a fish processing employee who injured her knee when she was struck by a 40 pound box of frozen fish product during an offload in Dutch Harbor. When our client’s doctor determined that she needed a total knee replacement, American Seafoods refused to pay for the medical treatment or pay maintenance to Mai unless she submitted to a company medical examination in Seattle. When Mai refused to submit to the examination, American Seafoods terminated her maintenance and cure and filed a declaratory judgment action against Mai in federal court in Seattle.

The Washington Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s finding that American Seafoods’ refusal to pay maintenance and cure was “willful, persistent, and unreasonable.” The court stated: “The trial court could reasonably conclude from the evidence that the true reason for this challenge was a desire to develop expert testimony for anticipated litigation, rather than any serious question about Mai’s knee for a [total knee replacement].”

Soundly rejecting American Seafoods’ claim that it could deny maintenance and cure if Mai refused to submit to a medical examination by company doctors, the court stated: “We hold that . . . ASC could not condition Mai’s receipt of maintenance and cure upon her attendance at an IME.” It also stated: “[R]eported maritime law decisions provide little support for ASC’s claim that the scope of that investigation goes so far as to allow a shipowner to avoid maintenance and cure liability under the facts of this case.”

Finally, the court held that even an expert opinion from the company doctor disagreeing with Mai’s treating doctor would not justify a change of course: “At best, [the opinion of the company doctor] would have provided ASC with a competing recommendation for treatment of a condition acknowledged to require medical care.”

The case is significant because it rejects efforts by fishing companies or other maritime employers to require employees to submit to medical examinations by company doctors in order to receive maintenance and cure.