When Is a Vessel Unseaworthy?
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 and can cause serious injuries or death. Knowing if a vessel was seaworthy during an accident can help an injured seaman make a Jones Act claim against their employer and can be a key part of a trial or settlement.
The Doctrine of Unseaworthiness
For nearly as long as modern sea-going 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.
An unseaworthy vessel is one that is especially prone to capsizing or sinking because of its condition. However, being unseaworthy does not only mean a vessel isn’t prepared to navigate the water. A vessel can also be considered unseaworthy if it does not provide a safe environment for crews to work in. The law doesn’t give specifics for what makes a vessel unseaworthy so that it can apply to many situations. Looking at other cases can help us understand the characteristics of an unseaworthy vessel.
Qualities that make a vessel unseaworthy might include:
- A lack of safety equipment
- Improper navigation equipment
- A crew that isn’t properly trained
- Worn or improperly maintained equipment
- Slip and fall hazards
- Toxic substances
- And more
Why Unseaworthiness Matters for Jones Act Claims
Before the Jones Act, American maritime workers were unable to pursue their employers for negligence. Instead, they received payments under the rules of maintenance and cure; an old maritime law that requires vessel owners to provide medical care and payment to a worker until they reach maximum recovery. While it doesn’t require a seaman to prove negligence on the part of their employer, it’s a very limited method of obtaining compensation.
The Jones Act makes up for the deficiencies of maintenance and cure by allowing maritime workers to obtain compensation for their employer’s negligence. One of the key parts of proving an employer was negligent is showing that a vessel was unseaworthy at the time of an accident. So, proving unseaworthiness can become the foundation of an injured offshore worker’s case and can allow them to recover the amount of compensation they need to recover losses.