Print this Page
Case Basics
Docket No. 
Clifford Vaughan
N. J. Atkinson
Decided By 
(for the petitioner)
(for the respondents)
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?

Decision: 5 votes for Vaughan, 2 vote(s) against
Legal provision:

Yes and yes. In a 5-2 opinion for the Court, Justice William O. Douglas held that allowing offset would encourage callous ship owners to refuse maintenance and cure. Moreover, courts in admiralty have adequate equity power to treat attorney’s fees as damages from failure to pay maintenance (and cure) when it was a willful breach of duty.

Justice Potter Stewart, joined by Justice John Marshall Harlan II, dissented. While there should be no duty to mitigate, wages should be offset when actually earned. The duty to pay maintenance and cure was created to make the seaman whole, not afford him a windfall.

Cite this Page
VAUGHAN v. ATKINSON. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 26 August 2015. <>.
VAUGHAN v. ATKINSON, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, (last visited August 26, 2015).
"VAUGHAN v. ATKINSON," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 26, 2015,