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 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.
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.
Merriam-Webster defines 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.
Examples of Unseaworthiness
The following are examples of equipment or features that could make a vessel unseaworthy:
- Insufficient or inadequate lifeboats to safely evacuate the crew and any passengers
- Lack of proper anti-skid material on walkways, decks, etc.
- Defective or poorly maintained ladders or other equipment
- Lack of proper warnings signs regarding hazardous conditions
- Trip and fall hazards
- Outdated or faulty navigation equipment
- No safe access to shore (broken or missing gangway)
The following are examples of crew-related unseaworthiness:
- Not enough crew to perform a given task
- Failure to hire enough properly trained crew members
- Pushing crews to work too many hours at once
- Lack of proper crew supervision
- No safety precautions in place to protect crew members
Filing an Unseaworthiness Claim
To file an unseaworthiness claim, you must meet the definition of a seaman: you must actively contribute to the operations of a vessel in navigable waters. You (and your attorney) will then need to prove that the vessel was unseaworthy in some way and that was why you were injured. You may be able to file a claim under the doctrine of unseaworthiness, even if the shipowner was unaware of the unseaworthiness. You are not required to prove negligence, only that the condition existed.
At Arnold & Itkin, we are here to help if you were injured on an unseaworthy vessel. We also help families who have lost loved ones in offshore accidents and disasters caused by unseaworthiness. As leading offshore injury attorneys, we know precisely how to help injured seamen recover the fair compensation to which they're entitled under all applicable maritime laws.
To find out how we can help you, call (888) 346-5024 today.