Who is Liable for Pirate Attacks at Sea?

The pirate attack of the Maersk Alabama in 2009 was the first time pirates had captured a U.S. vessel since the early 19th century. The highly publicized incident involving the capture of a cargo ship by Somali pirates raised questions as to the liability of companies in the event of a pirate attack. In a currently pending lawsuit, several crewmembers of the vessel are seeking compensation because of Maersk's negligence in failing to defend them against potential attacks.

It is largely understood that pirate attacks are not uncommon in certain areas of the seas, and the owners of both cargo and cruise ships are expected to take proper precautions. These can include training crewmembers in case of emergencies, equipping ships with defensive weapons, and plotting routes that avoid particularly risky areas.

According to The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010, cruise ships must be equipped with Acoustic Hailing Devices. These devices can be used to emit high-pitched noise over long distances at attackers, causing severe ear pain and ideally defending the ship against a pirate threat. Not all ships have complied with this new law, and some cruise lines seek to minimize costs by providing minimal security. Should pirate attacks be successful against one of these ships lacking the legally required defenses, one can only speculate that the company could be held liable for damages and injuries to the crew and the passengers.

Liability can be established against vessel owners and operators if they are aware of dangers posed to crew or passengers and do not take adequate steps to protect them from these risks. For areas in which pirate attacks are a known threat, it stands to reason that ship owners who do not properly train or provide for crewmembers or passengers may face legal action.

Areas such as the Gulf of Aden are known for pirate attacks, yet some cruise lines still seek to book cruises across these waters with little warning given to passengers. In 2008, 111 ships were captured in the Gulf of Aden. If a U.S. cruise ship is captured in this area or another region known for attacks, the cruise line company could very easily face legal ramifications and lawsuits.

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