If you work aboard a ship, you want it to be seaworthy. Of course, that means it should be able to remain afloat as it travels from point A to point B. But you know it means more than that.
As the recent collision of two towboats reminds us, vessels can be unseaworthy for more than one reason. A bad port clutch may limit a ship’s maneuverability and lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fortunately, no one was injured when the towboats collided, but the unseaworthiness of a vessel can easily cost people their lives.
Ship owners need to keep their vessels seaworthy
It can be hard to make sense of maritime law. There are numerous laws that cover ships, their owners, crew and passengers. There are laws for longshore workers and dock workers. And each case may find countless precedents from centuries of case law. But one thing that remains consistent is that ship owners need to keep their vessels seaworthy.
Passengers and crew who suffer because their vessels were unseaworthy may be able to seek compensation. Notably, this doesn’t prevent them from seeking compensation by other means. As the Supreme Court previously noted, they may still pursue any other claims they may have. Unseaworthiness claims don’t prevent crew from seeking maintenance and cure or filing for compensation under the Jones Act.
The legal definition of seaworthiness
If “seaworthiness” means more than your ship’s ability to sail from point A to point B, what does it mean? Generally, the answer is that a vessel needs to be reasonably able to carry out its intended purpose.
So, for example, when an injured worker lost two fingers due to an accident involving a broken hydraulic handle, he filed his claim against the owner of the fishing vessel on which he worked. The Supreme Court noted the employer could be negligent for “providing a broken hydraulic handle.” But it also noted the ship might have been unseaworthy based on:
“the unfit condition of the hydraulic handle, left unrepaired for years, making the hatch a trap.”
Presumably, this is because the hydraulic handle contributed toward the vessel’s intended purpose of gathering fish.
Other things that could render vessels unseaworthy may include:
- Broken, worn or poorly maintained equipment and machinery, including fire and smoke alarms
- Designs that aren’t up to code
- Inadequate life-saving equipment
- Poorly trained or understaffed crew
This isn’t a full list. The actual seaworthiness of your vessel depends largely on its function. And that’s part of the reason it’s so important your ship is up to code and inspected regularly.
How do you prove a ship is unseaworthy?
The unseaworthiness of your vessel need not be linked to any negligence on its owner’s part. Meanwhile, vessels with different purposes may be unseaworthy for different reasons. Taken together, these can make it tricky to identify when a ship is unseaworthy.
That’s why if you feel your ship’s unseaworthiness may have led to your injury, you want to consult with an attorney who has experience in maritime law. You deserve answers that are tied directly to your circumstances, and you may deserve compensation for your suffering.