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It was a good night. The sea was choppy but the weather was clear, so the 59-strong crew of the Dona Paz was confident that they would make it to port on time—5 AM at the latest. Paquito Osabel, one of the thousands of passengers onboard, sat cross-legged on the floor with his sister, Alejandra, and her young daughters: Evangelina, Anna Liza, and Loreta.
Around them, the bunks were uncomfortably crowded—three or four people squeezed together on a cot built for one. There was no relief from the crowds on any of the ship’s three decks, and they were exhausted from 18 hours of travel. In six more hours, they would be in Manila. Paquito looked forward to having his sister and nieces spend Christmas with his family.
It would be the last night he would ever spend with them.
At 10:30 PM, sleeping passengers awoke to a panic. The ship was suddenly struck on its port side, and crew were running frantically around the decks. Within two minutes of impact, the ship’s lights went out. No effort was made to organize passengers—through the screaming, passengers realized the vessel had caught fire.
"I went to a window to see what happened, and I saw the sea in flames," Paquito Osabel later said.
The Dona Paz, a passenger ferry traveling from Tacloban to Manila, had been struck by the Vector—a 692-ton tanker carrying 9,000 barrels of gasoline and petroleum products. A fire that began on the Vector spread to the Dona Paz and surrounding waters. Thousands of passengers looked for direction from their crew, but the crew were as panicked as they were.
Many passengers, like Paquito, decided to jump into the flaming waters rather than take their chances with the sinking ship. He, along with many attempted survivors, had to swim by charred bodies and cling to pieces of driftwood to survive. Most of them suffered severe burns. By midnight, the Dona Paz had sunken completely.
The next day, rescue staff testified that “except for some pieces of driftwood,” the area didn’t look like the site of the worst maritime disaster of the 20th century. Among the 13 crew members of the Vector, 2 survived. Of the 59 crew members of the Dona Paz, none survived. Of the 4,300+ passengers of the Dona Paz, only 24 survived.
Stories like this aren’t just tragedies—they're the result of violating the oldest laws in human history. This article is the first in a series that will examine the role of maritime law in our lives, from ancient history to the recent headlines that have shaped the trial landscape, to the stories of regular people who were able to rebuild their lives thanks to its protection.
Maritime law doesn’t just affect offshore workers, sailors, or shipping companies—in some form or another, maritime law has steered the history of the world itself.
Maritime shipping is one of the oldest and largest means of trade between nations. Ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians were among the earliest seafarers, trading spices and goods up and down the Mediterranean coast. Scholars believe that among these early ships and routes, there was a rudimentary set of regulations governing the waterways. While no such laws have been found, maritime trade has always been strengthened and secured by maritime law.
One of the earliest maritime laws that we have in writing is a Byzantine law from between 600 and 800 AD. Known as the Rhodian Sea Law, one of its stipulations was that shippers were liable for theft or damage to the cargo or ship. While maritime law was in its infancy, it was already assumed that vessel owners were responsible for what was in their care. It compelled traders to ensure their ships were safe enough to brave the open seas.
It would be a few hundred years before one of the most vital protections for offshore workers would be established. Eleanor of Aquitaine, who ruled over England as regent, codified the Rolls of Oleron in 1160 AD—one of the most influential maritime codes in history. Her laws were based on Rhodian Sea Law mentioned above.
(Interestingly enough, she likely learned about these principles ring her visit to Jerusalem for the Second Crusade—maritime law was uniquely stable and codified in the Mediterranean).
Article VI of the Rolls of Oleron says:
“If by the master’s orders and commands any of the ship’s company be in the service of the ship, and thereby happen to be wounded or otherwise hurt, in that case they shall be cured and provided for at the costs and charges of the said ship.”
This short paragraph—placed among lengthy rules about who can claim beached whales or how to execute pirates—is a monumental moment in legal history. It continues to shape the obligations of vessel owners and is cited in legal commentaries to this day.
We know this law as a captain’s obligation to provide "maintenance and cure." When seamen are injured, captains must provide medical care, rest, and other resources to ensure the health of the worker—free of charge. Similarly, maintenance is the vessel's obligation to pay for living expenses while the seaman recovers.
One of the most vital principles in maritime history was the idea that vessel owners were legally and financially responsible for the people under their command—not just cargo. This legal theory is the backbone of laws such as the Jones Act, the Death on the High Seas Act, the doctrine of unseaworthiness, and other vital worker protections.
Believe it or not, these laws became the base of what would eventually create the United States.
As the child (and then the enemy) of the greatest seafaring power in the 18th century, the American colonies were intimately familiar with maritime laws. The colonies’ primary function was to buy excess goods from British ships while sending off raw materials. Entrepreneurs abided by codes that existed for hundreds of years, and some of the Founding Fathers were primarily maritime attorneys—including John Adams and Alexander Hamilton.
More importantly, the American Revolution began as a response to Britain’s maritime laws.
One of the chief complaints listed in the Declaration of Independence was “For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury.” This was a specific reference to Admiralty Law under the British Empire, which did not provide the right to a trial by jury. Britain allowed Admiralty Courts to have jurisdiction over colonial ones, meaning many Americans would no longer have their cases heard and decided on by other Americans.
The Seventh Amendment, the amendment that guarantees you the right to a jury trial, began as a comment by John Adams that the “laws of the land” (literally “not maritime law”) should form the basis for jury trials and fact-finding. The U.S. trial system, both civil and criminal, was fortified by a resistance to British Admiralty procedure.
As the new nation grew, its practice of admiralty law grew as well. With an infant economy, the nation needed to protect vessel owners and seamen, both of whom were responsible for increasing young America’s wealth. Initially, laws were created to protect traders and shippers, who undertook great risk to grow America’s influence on the world stage. These laws, like the Limited Liability Act of 1851, were created to protect fragile companies from being sued into bankruptcy from circumstances outside their control.
By the same token, a ship cannot be sailed without a crew—Congress eventually understood that protecting offshore workers was equally vital for a thriving economy. The doctrine of unseaworthiness, based on the earliest legal principles, obligated vessel owners to make sure their ships were safe for the crew. It also made owners responsible if a vessel was unseaworthy. However, this was not officially legislated, so laws were written to codify seamen’s rights.
Decades after the Limited Liability Act, two laws—the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 and the Death on the High Seas Act—helped ensure that those harmed at sea had the right to pursue financial recovery for their injuries.
The Merchant Marine Act (or the Jones Act) allowed injured seamen the right to trial by jury.
The Death on the High Seas Act allowed the surviving family members of a seaman killed offshore to recover damages, as long as the cause was negligence.
Alongside maintenance and cure, these two laws are the only laws that allow seamen and their loved ones to pursue damages against employers for negligence or unseaworthiness.
These laws are vital to our health and ideals as a country. However, as a common law nation, trials determine the practice of U.S. maritime law. In that sense, it’s maritime attorneys who help shape the legal landscape for sailors and shipping companies alike, guided by age-old principles to solve contemporary problems.
When case law (based in fact and current circumstances) continually butts heads with the written law (which is decades, sometimes centuries old), Congress should do what it's supposed to do: update the laws to match current circumstances.
The Dona Paz’ owner, Sulpicio Lines, was eventually absolved of all responsibility for its part in the deaths of its passengers. Perhaps that sounds reasonable to some readers—after all, it was the Vector that struck the Dona Paz in the first place. Collision could not be predicted by anyone onboard the Dona Paz—even if there had been a qualified lookout.
But that’s not the whole story.
In 1963, Onomichi Zosen manufactured a ship named the Himeyuri Maru, with a passenger capacity of 608 people. Little over a decade later, the ship was bought by Sulpicio Lines and was eventually renamed the Dona Paz. Only four years after, the vessel burst aflame while traveling out of Manila. Thankfully there were no casualties aboard the ship, which was carrying over 1,100 people at the time. However, the ship was wrecked, and designated as a “total loss.”
At this point, we can only speculate what led to the next decision. A completely destroyed ship is a massive loss—one that Sulpicio Lines may not have been prepared for. They had only bought the ship from its previous owners four years prior, and now their massive investment was gone. A total loss. Perhaps the loss was more than the company could take.
Whatever the case, Sulpicio bought back the wrecked ship, refurbished it, and returned it to service.
When the story of the Vector collision first broke, the initial report was about 1,500 casualties. Why so low compared to later reports? Because early reports had only the manifests, and did not know what we know now: Sulpicio Lines had been packing the ship over capacity to profit from holiday travelers. The traffic rush compelled them to illegally sell over 2,500 tickets to passengers who were never reported on the manifest, in addition to children (who did not receive tickets).
Over 25 years later, survivors of the Dona Paz disaster continue to wait for justice. Their cases have gone unheard, both in the Philippines and in Louisiana courts, where some of the Vector’s backers are based. Many have taken settlements for pennies, tired of the waiting and the apathy. Some of these settlements were as low as $1,500.
Meanwhile, Sulpicio Lines continues operating. Since being absolved of their part in the sinking of the Dona Paz, four of their ships have sunk and ended the lives of 1,100 crew and passengers.
Maritime law exists to keep companies like Sulpicio accountable to their workers, their passengers, and the families of those lost at sea. The law has failed to do that—and because of that failure, hundreds are dead that didn’t need to be. Thousands more have received almost nothing for the pain and loss they’ve suffered. That’s why maritime law matters.
For a brief time, Sulpicio Lines was forced to ground their fleet, but eventually resumed operations. They are now known as Philippine Span Asia Carrier, with a passenger vessel named Princess of the South and 12 cargo vessels operating all over the Philippines. Among Filipinos, they are known by another name: “Suspicious Lines.”
The company has yet to be held accountable in court.
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