Claims of Unseaworthiness

Harmed by an Unseaworthy Vessel? Contact Arnold & Itkin.

One of the cornerstones of maritime law involves determining the seaworthiness of a vessel. Seaworthiness describes a vessel’s condition and whether it is in the proper condition to safely operate on open water. When a vessel is unseaworthy, it can place the safety of everyone on board at risk and can cause serious injuries or death.

Maritime employers are required to maintain seaworthy vessels. They can be held liable (legally responsible) if they fail to do so and a seaman is injured or loses their life. This is applicable under the doctrine of unseaworthiness. If you or someone you love has been harmed because of an unseaworthy offshore oil platform, cruise ship, cargo vessel, barge, tugboat, or any maritime vessel, you may have grounds for a claim of unseaworthiness.

To find out more about your rights and how to move forward, contact an unseaworthiness lawyer at Arnold & Itkin. We’re known nationwide as the leader in maritime law.

The Doctrine of Unseaworthiness

For nearly as long as modern seagoing vessels have been built, admiralty law has provided standards for the maintenance of a ship. The concept of absolute duty is a part of maritime law that makes a maritime employer responsible for providing their crew with a vessel that’s safe to work on. They must make sure that the ship is in working order, and they’re responsible for any injuries caused by their failure to do so.

Injured seamen typically have three courses of recovery:

  • Maintenance and cure, which is similar to workers' compensation and provides for an injured maritime worker's living expenses and medical treatment after an on-the-job injury. It is provided on a no-fault basis.
  • The Jones Act, which allows an injured seaman to sue their employer for any injuries experienced as a result of negligence. The Jones Act is fault-based, and the worker must prove their employer's negligence to recover compensation, which may include medical care, lost earnings, pain and suffering, and possibly more.
  • The unseaworthiness doctrine, which applies to injuries caused by an unseaworthy vessel. While it is fault-based like Jones Act claims, shipowners can be held strictly liable for injuries caused by unseaworthiness. This means that specific negligence does not need to be proven; only that the vessel was not seaworthy and that the seaman was injured as a result. Compensation may include lost earnings, medical care, pain and suffering, and possibly more.

A Closer Look at Unseaworthiness

Merriam-Webster defines the term unseaworthy as "not fit for a sea voyage: not seaworthy." It's estimated that the word was first used around 1820, although the first known use of "seaworthy" was in 1798.

Maritime employers have an obligation to provide seaworthy vessels. They must also maintain a vessel so it remains seaworthy. Under maritime law, "seaworthy" means more than just a vessel that can remain afloat and move through the water. It must be fit enough to serve its intended purpose.

An unseaworthy vessel is not only one that is prone to capsizing or sinking because of its poor condition. It is one that cannot perform well enough to serve its goals. Unseaworthiness can apply to the vessel itself, its ability to navigate the water, and even the size and competence of its crew. If a vessel does not provide a reasonably safe work environment for its crew, it may be considered unseaworthy under the doctrine of unseaworthiness.

The following are examples of conditions that could make a vessel unseaworthy:

  • Malfunctioning or poorly maintained machinery and equipment
  • Not enough crew on the vessel
  • Not enough crew assigned to a given task
  • Lack of proper crew supervision
  • Lack of appropriate safety rails or guards on equipment and machinery
  • Lack of fire extinguishers or fire suppression equipment
  • Rusty hatches or doors with failed seals
  • Outdated or faulty navigation equipment
  • No safe access to shore (broken or missing gangway)
  • Lack of proper anti-skid material on walkways, decks, etc.
  • Lack of proper hoists or elevators
  • Lack of proper safety equipment, including lifeboats and life jackets
  • Untrained crew or captain
  • Lack of safe living areas
  • Lack of sufficient food, or food that has been contaminated
  • Unsanitary conditions, such as improper waste disposal or pest infestations
  • Improperly stowed or inadequately secured cargo

These claims are slightly different from typical Jones Act claims, as a claim of unseaworthiness does not require the injured worker to prove negligence. A claim of unseaworthiness relates to the conditions of the vessel itself, not necessarily the acts of negligence or wrongdoing that led to them. Even if a separate Jones Act claim is filed, injured maritime workers may be able to pursue an unseaworthiness claim as well. 

Who Is Liable for a Claim of Unseaworthiness?

The owner is responsible for upholding the strict standards of a vessel to provide an environment that is reasonable for the seaman. It is the "absolute duty" of the vessel's owner that all aspects of the vessel and the ongoing operations meet the safety requirements; this obligation falls to no one else. 

Substandard care of a vessel is unacceptable. If a vessel is not fit to perform its intended duties safely and a worker is injured as a result, then they may file an unseaworthiness claim against their employer.

Generally speaking, a seaworthy vessel must meet the following conditions:

  • Must be in a reasonably fit condition
  • Must have safe, functioning tools, and equipment
  • Must have safe work conditions for employees
  • Must provide sufficient safety devices
  • Must have enough properly trained crew members

Meeting these conditions can be difficult on an aging vessel, and the average age of commercial cargo ships worldwide is over 20 years old, according to the International Maritime Organization. As maritime vessels age, the wear and tear from years at sea become increasingly pronounced, often making it more difficult to keep them in optimal condition. 

To ensure their seaworthiness, operators of older vessels must invest significantly in periodic inspections, repairs, and replacements of worn-out parts. Additionally, integrating modern safety systems, updating navigation tools, and ensuring the crew is trained in the latest safety procedures become paramount. Despite the challenges, ensuring that these vessels are fit for operation is crucial for the safety of both the crew and the maritime ecosystem.

Talk to an Attorney About Your Unseaworthiness Claim

Many factors may support a claim of unseaworthiness, which is always brought against the vessel owner as opposed to a maritime employer (in some cases, they may be one and the same). The effect of an unseaworthiness claim is to draw a vessel owner into a lawsuit as a potential source of recovery.

As an injured seaman, you may be able to bring a claim against your employer if the employer was the owner or operator of the vessel. However, in many cases, the vessel will be owned by a third party. In that case, the unseaworthiness claim would need to be brought against them, making it a more complicated process. 

At Arnold & Itkin, our unseaworthiness claim attorneys understand the intricacies of these cases. As leaders in maritime law, we have represented clients after some of the worst disasters offshore, such as the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and the sinking of the El Faro, holding at-fault parties accountable and securing life-changing compensation for crew members and their families. We represent all types of seamen and offshore workers who have suffered the consequences of vessel unseaworthiness in navigable waterways in the U.S. and worldwide.

Call (888) 346-5024 now to find out how we can help with your claim of unseaworthiness. Your consultation is free and confidential.

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