There are numerous remedies for seaman who are injured on a ship. These remedies can be extremely useful in starting the restorative process for an injured worker. Deciding which remedy is best can be a confusing and stressful task. This is why it is crucial to contact an experienced maritime personal injury attorney if you or your loved one finds themselves in this position. One appropriate option may be a claim for unseaworthiness.

A seaworthy cargo ship

The doctrine of unseaworthiness is one of the remedies available to seamen who are injured while on a boat or “vessel.” The law of unseaworthiness is intended to protect seaman and ensure that the conditions they are working in are safe and adequate. When working conditions fall below a reasonably safe standard and a seaman is injured as the result, they may have a claim for unseaworthiness. 

Maritime law classifies a ship as seaworthy when the vessel, equipment, or appurtenances are reasonably fit for their intended use. The standard is reasonableness. Therefore, the vessel or the equipment aboard does not have to be kept in perfect condition for it to maintain its status as seaworthy. If these elements of a ship or the ship itself fall below this reasonableness standard, a claim for unseaworthiness may arise. 

Some elements of a ship that must meet seaworthy status are: 

  • The hull of a ship
  • Ropes and tackle aboard a ship
  • The ship’s cargo handling machinery
  • Ship’s provisions of food, furniture, and apparel 
  • All equipment belonging to the ship or brought aboard the vessel by stevedores 
  • Members of the crew including liability for assaults, brutality, or for employing an improperly trained crew. 

Notably lacking from this list is the ship’s cargo itself. However, the method of cargo storage must be reasonably fit for the purpose of cargo storage. 

The following are typical circumstances in which these elements may be classified as unseaworthy: 

  • Defective part of the physical ship
  • Defective training of the crew
  • Insufficient number of workers assigned to perform a shipboard task
  • Slippery Deck from a water leak
  • Missing safety guards
  • Toxic fumes
  • Failure to provide a safe means of loading or unloading a vessel
  • Inadequate number of supplies or provisions
  • Broken or defective tools 
 

To bring a claim of unseaworthiness there are criteria that the vessel and the plaintiff must meet. In order for a ship to be classified as unseaworthy, the vessel must be in navigation. Therefore, ships that are docked for an extensive period may not be the subject of an unseaworthy claim. To be an eligible plaintiff in an unseaworthy claim, the individual must be classified as a seaman. Therefore, a passenger or visitors on a vessel do not have a right to bring this claim. A seaman who qualifies to assert Jones act and Maintenance and Cure claims also qualifies to bring unseaworthy claims. Individuals who qualify as longshoremen do not have the ability to bring this action. However, not every injury sustained by a seaman on a ship in navigation will give rise to a claim of unseaworthiness. The plaintiff must be able to prove that the unseaworthy condition was the proximate cause of his injury. 

The responsibility of ensuring the safety of a ship lies with the owner of the vessel. Therefore, the owner of a vessel may be held liable as a proper defendant for the damages the injured seaman sustains as a result of the unsafe conditions upon his boat. This obligation may not be delegated. The duty of the owner to provide a safe vessel is absolute. This means that a claim for unseaworthiness is separate and distinct from a claim of negligence. The absolute duty imposed on the owner of a ship allows a plaintiff to recover damages caused by the unsafe conditions in cases where the vessel’s owner did not have knowledge of the unsafe condition.

An unseaworthy claim is also distinct from a Jones Act claim. A major difference between these two, besides the requirement to prove negligence in a Jones Act claim, is that a plaintiff in an unseaworthy action may recover remedies traditionally available under general maritime law. This allows an injured seaman to recover all damages typical to the Jones Act plus additional damages such as loss of consortium for the spouse and children of the seaman. However, because the two claims are intertwined, they are commonly brought together in the same lawsuit. In fact, if a plaintiff brings an unseaworthy claim without the Jones Act they will potentially lose their right to a jury trial. 

Deciding whether an individual meets the requirements to bring an unseaworthy claim presents complex questions of fact and law under maritime law. The knowledgeable and experienced maritime attorneys at Scott Vicknair are here to assist in answering these questions, so please give our maritime lawyers a call at 504-500-111 today for a free consultation on your maritime injury claim.