Unseaworthiness Claims

A vessel owner owes a duty to provide a seaworthy vessel for his crewmen to work upon. The owner may not delegate the duty to provide a seaworthy vessel to another.

To be seaworthy, a vessel must be reasonable fit for its intended purpose. Its equipment and crew must be reasonably safe. A defective tool, equipment, or method of operation renders a vessel unseaworthy. The failure of a piece of vessel equipment under normal and usual use renders the vessel unseaworthy. The duty to provide a seaworthy vessel is absolute, and temporary conditions may render the vessel unseaworthy.

The duty to provide a seaworthy vessel includes the duty to provide a competent crew properly trained to navigate and operate the vessel. There must not only be adequate crew aboard to safely operate and navigate the vessel, the crew assigned to do a task must be competent to perform the task, and there must be an adequate number of crew assigned to do each assigned task. Assigning one man to do a two-man job renders a vessel unseaworthy.

A vessel owner should take a proactive approach to prevent their crewmen from being injured. The modern safety trend requires that a vessel owner perform a job hazard analysis of each task aboard a vessel to determine whether or not the task presents an unreasonable risk of harm to crewmen aboard the vessel. A crewman shouldn’t have to suffer a career ending injury before a piece of ship’s equipment is fixed or proper safety procedures are implemented.

The duty to provide a seaworthy vessel starts with providing a safe method to get aboard and off the vessel. A proper vessel gangway or other safe access must be provided to crewman. Because of the risk of serious injury, special caution and planning should be used to make sure that a crewman has a safe method to get aboard and off his vessel. Temporary gangways and ladders that are unsafe rendered a vessel unseaworthy.

A seaworthy vessel must be ready to react when things go wrong; your life depends upon proper preparation, training and equipment. There must be proper safety equipment aboard a vessel including EPIRBS, survival suits, and life rafts. A boat owner must train his crew in proper safety procedures, including abandon ship and cold-water survival. A survival suit that doesn’t fit or that is stored in a location where it can’t be reached in an emergency is of no use when a sudden emergency arises.

Classic cases of unseaworthiness involve the removal of safety guards from a ship’s equipment. Machinery that breaks or malfunctions under normal and expected use is presumed to be unseaworthy. A vessel that puts speed of operation and production over the safety of their crewmen is an unseaworthy vessel.

The unseaworthiness doctrine applies only to seamen who are employed aboard the vessel and aid in the accomplishment of the ship’s mission. The vessel must be in navigation and capable navigation. Vessels are given a broad definition and may include any device used as a means of transportation over water. One Supreme Court Judge stated: “If it floats, it’s a boat.” The seaman must have more than a sporadic connection to the vessel. A maritime worker who spends more that 30% of his time working aboard a vessel is likely a seaman. If you have been injured working aboard a vessel, an experienced maritime injury lawyer should be consulted to determine whether or not you have legal status as seaman.

Fish processors working aboard vessels that are capable of navigation are seamen. Longshore harbor workers are not seamen because they do not have the substantial connection to the vessel necessary for seaman status. Longshore workers are land-based workers who do not go to sea and are workers not exposed to the hazards of working at sea.

Seamen do not pass in and out of seaman status; they either have seaman status or they don’t. A seaman who normally works aboard a vessel usually retains seaman status when he works on a dock doing seaman duties. The duty to provide a safe place to work extends to seamen assigned to work temporarily aboard vessels other than their own.

The duty to provide a seaworthy vessel is a powerful tool used by experienced maritime lawyers to obtain fair recovery for an injured seaman and commercial fisherman. Injury claims for unseaworthiness are often joined with claims for Jones Act negligence. In many cases, there may be both negligence and unseaworthiness that cause a crewman’s injury. To recover damages under the unseaworthiness doctrine, the unseaworthy condition must be a substantial contributing factor to the crewman’s injury. The burden of proof is much lighter under the Jones Act, and there is liability under Jones Act if the employer’s negligence plays any part not matter how slight in causing the seaman’s injury.

Damages recoverable under the unseaworthiness doctrine include damages for past and future pain and suffering, lost wages, lost wage earning capacity, and past and future medical expenses. There is no limit or cap on the amount of damages available for injuries caused by unseaworthiness. Each injury case involving unseaworthiness must be carefully analyzed to determine the proper amount of damages that may be claimed.

Maritime injury lawyer James Beard has handled hundreds of unseaworthiness claims for injured seamen and commercial fishermen. Beard has brought unseaworthiness claims for the families of crewmen lost in fishing vessel sinking cases. He has made unseaworthiness claims for captains, mates, engineers, and crewmen. The unseaworthiness doctrine applies to vessels such as commercial fishing boats, factory trawlers, trawlers, tugs and barges, ferry boats, marine construction platforms, jack up rigs, gold dredges, work boats, and pile drivers. If you have questions about your claim for compensation under the unseaworthiness doctrine or Jones Act, contact Beard for a free initial consultation, toll free, at 1-800-621-1091.