What Is a Ship Arrest?

A ship arrest is a legal procedure where a ship is detained in port due to a maritime claim against it or its owner. This claim could arise from unpaid debts, damages, or other disputes related to maritime law. The arrest ensures the ship remains in place, providing security that the claim will be addressed, either through negotiations or court proceedings. It prevents the vessel from leaving the jurisdiction, making it easier for the claimant to seek resolution or compensation.

The laws and processes related to vessel arrests are found in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure: XIII. Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions. Under Supplemental Rule C, a vessel can be arrested in "in rem" actions to enforce various maritime liens and claims against the vessel itself. 

Some reasons for ship arrest under this rule include:

  • Unpaid Crew Wages: When crew members aren't paid their due wages, they can place a maritime lien on the vessel.
  • Unpaid Supplies and Necessaries: If a supplier provides goods or services (like fuel, repairs, or provisions) to a vessel and isn't paid, they can seek to arrest the vessel for the unpaid amount.
  • Maritime Vessel Salvage Claims: If another vessel or party provides salvage services to a ship in distress, they can claim a lien on the saved vessel to ensure they are fairly compensated for their efforts.
  • Damage from Collisions: If a vessel causes damage to another vessel or property due to a collision or allision, the damaged party can seek to arrest the at-fault vessel to secure compensation.
  • Mortgage Claims: If a vessel owner defaults on a ship mortgage, the lender or bank may arrest the vessel.
  • Cargo Claims: Disputes related to damage, loss, or delay of cargo can also lead to the arrest of a vessel.
  • Torts or Wrongful Acts: Such as personal injury and wrongful death claims, or environmental damages.
  • Breach of Charter Party: Charter agreement disputes, such as unpaid charter hire, can be a basis for vessel arrest.

The Ship Arrest Process

Arresting a vessel is a potent remedy in maritime law, ensuring that claims against a mobile and often international asset can be secured. The specific processes and rights related to vessel arrest can vary depending on the jurisdiction and the applicable international conventions.

While every case is different, the following is a basic overview of the ship arrest process:

  • First, the claimant should establish a legitimate claim against the vessel that is recognized under applicable laws.
  • Typically, the claimant hires a maritime attorney in the jurisdiction where the vessel is located or expected to be.
  • The claimant's attorney prepares an application or petition for the arrest of the vessel.
  • The attorney then files this claim with the appropriate court or maritime authority, providing supporting evidence.
  • If the court or maritime authority is satisfied with the application, it will issue a warrant or order for the vessel's arrest.
  • The U.S. Marshal for that district will carry out the arrest by physically taking the vessel into custody.

In many jurisdictions, including the United States, vessel arrests fall under the purview of the admiralty or maritime courts. In the U.S., federal district courts have jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime matters. When a party seeks to arrest a vessel due to a maritime lien or claim, they typically petition the appropriate federal district court, which then operates in its admiralty capacity. If the court finds merit in the petition, it will issue a warrant of arrest for the vessel. The subsequent legal proceedings, including any potential judicial sale of the vessel, are overseen by the federal district court.

Releasing a Vessel After an Arrest

The release of an arrested vessel is a crucial phase in the maritime legal process. A vessel can be released from arrest under several circumstances. One common scenario is when the shipowner or another interested party provides a security or bond that is deemed adequate to cover the claim. This security acts as a guarantee that the claimant will receive payment, even if subsequent legal proceedings are ongoing. Another avenue for the release of a vessel is if both parties reach a settlement or resolution to the underlying claim, negating the need to keep the vessel detained. 

Additionally, the court itself might determine that the initial arrest of the vessel was without proper basis or was unjustified. In such cases, the vessel would be released, and depending on the jurisdiction, the arresting party might be liable for costs or damages arising from the improper arrest.

Ship Arrests & Maritime Injury Claims

Vessel arrests can happen in conjunction with a personal injury or wrongful death case. If an individual is injured or dies due to alleged negligence or unseaworthiness of a vessel, and there's a concern about the shipowner's ability or willingness to pay potential damages or satisfy a judgment, the injured party or the deceased's representatives can seek to arrest the vessel as a form of security.

The arrest serves to ensure that there's an asset (the vessel) that can be used to satisfy any judgment or settlement arising from the personal injury or wrongful death claim. By arresting the vessel, the claimants can effectively prevent it from leaving the jurisdiction, ensuring that the shipowner remains engaged in the legal process and that there's recourse for compensation. However, it's important to note that the ability to arrest a vessel in these circumstances, and the procedures to do so, will vary depending on the jurisdiction and the specifics of the maritime laws in place.

To learn more about ship arrests and your rights as a maritime worker, contact Arnold & Itkin

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