What Is an Unseaworthiness Claim or Lawsuit?

For injured crewmembers and seamen, finding the appropriate legal remedies to ensure compensation for injuries sustained while employed in an offshore capacity is essential towards successfully filing any type of claim. Under the customary maritime law known as the “unseaworthiness doctrine,” admiralty law in the United States allows both injured seamen and non-employee passengers to press forth legal claims against vessel owners and other negligent parties in the event of accidents or injuries sustained while aboard a vessel.

Defining the Doctrine of Unseaworthiness

Under the Doctrine of Unseaworthiness, the employer or owner(s) of the vessel owe a duty to provide a vessel that meets federal regulation standards of seaworthiness. Seaworthiness is typically defined as a vessel and its appurtenances (items associated with a specific standard of living or activity) being suitable for their intended use, whether by passengers or crewmembers in an employment capacity. In practice from a liability standpoint, any part of the vessel at any given time must be in proper and safe working order so as to ensure that this action will not cause harm to either the seaman or passenger. The Doctrine of Unseaworthiness also requires that a vessel have a properly trained and adequate crew, which if not obtained prior to departure is indicative of intentionally negligent breach of the duty owed under the doctrine of unseaworthiness. In accordance with this particular doctrine, if this standard is not upheld and an injury occurs due to a breach of the duty to provide a vessel that is seaworthy, the vessel owner(s) will be liable for the aforementioned injuries.

Unseaworthiness Lawsuits by Seamen or Crewmembers

In certain instances, maritime employees injured on a vessel may elect to seek recovery of damages sustained as part of a maritime-employment related work injury outside of the Jones or Longshore Harbor Workers’ Compensation Acts. Or in many cases, no-fault payments of maintenance and cure to injured seamen or crewmembers fails to fully reimburse and compensate an individual for his or her actual fiscal damages, both historical and expected future, as the result of a maritime workplace injury. In these instances, seamen or crewmembers may elect to file unseaworthiness lawsuits against liable parties, who are usually vessel owners found liable for negligently failing to adhere to the doctrine of seaworthiness or potentially causing the damages and injuries sustained by the employee.

Unseaworthiness Lawsuits by Passengers and Beneficiaries in Wrongful Death Claims

Should a maritime passenger experience harm, specifically fiscal damages as the result of their presence on an allegedly unseaworthy or hazardous vessel, passengers have a legal right to file an unseaworthiness lawsuit to recover compensation for damages sustained. Moreover, in cases of wrongful death at sea, family members of the deceased crewmember or seaman can obtain compensation including pension benefits for lost familial income, funerary expenses, and other anticipated and realized costs associated with the at sea death of their loved one.

Defining Unseaworthiness in Practice under Maritime Laws

Unseaworthy is a term deployed in maritime law comprised of many elements or components. Under maritime or admiralty law unseaworthy could be as simple as a vessel not having the appropriate non-skid surface on the deck, or potentially more serious issues such as:

  • Improperly designed equipment or deficient to nonexistent safety signage
  • Worn out equipment or fixtures, a lack of proper fixtures or equipment, and other slip or tripping hazards
  • A lack of safe access between the vessel and the shore, including failure to provide a reasonably competent and trained crew of appropriate size to service the vessel safely
  • Breaches of safety rules by crewmembers outside of the lack of an adequately trained crew and insufficient amount of crewmembers present to complete tasks safely, including failure to safely operate a vessel
  • Lack of medical care or medical facilities as required by seamen or passengers as would be reasonably expected in a similar situation 

Legal Angles to Consider When Filing an Unseaworthiness Lawsuit

For passengers, and likely in the case of seamen, having legal counsel involved from the outset of any intention to potentially sue a maritime entity or vessel owner is highly advisable. While vessel owners indubitably owe seamen and passengers a suitable, safe, and seaworthy working environment, which if not provided by the vessel owner is tantamount to negligence, claims filed must consider the following possibilities, including:

  • Certain seamen and crewmember claims would be best served by filing under the Jones Act
  • Certain claims made by onshore maritime workers not subject to the Jones Act may be better served by filing under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act
  • Likewise, passenger claims against negligent vessel owners may be more successfully filed under different legal doctrines as well
  • However, in all cases of claims invoking the doctrine of unseaworthiness when attempting to meet a burden of causation and negligence as the proximate cause under maritime law, claimants must adhere to a statute of limitations of three (3) years or their right to file claims will be subject to a contested date of discovery process, in which the courts will seek to hear arguments on the approximate and reasonable date of discovery of harms in a case-specific context
  • Claims under the doctrine of unseaworthiness do not include a right to a jury trial
  • Claims involving seamen or crewmembers may be subject to a two (2) statute of limitations in any filing made under other federal maritime laws
  • Claims for wrongful death may be best filed under the Death on the High Seas Act provisions applicable to negligence as a contributory factor or proximate cause of a wrongful death at sea
  • All claims made under the provisions and precedents establishing the doctrine of unseaworthiness and duty of seaworthiness owed to seamen and passengers can credibly lay claim for documented damages including medical expenses, per diem per maintenance and cure admiralty law provisions, lost income, expected future medical costs, compensation for disability or decreased mobility, and if applicable, non-economic damage claims

Furthermore, in cases of wrongful death filed under the legal theory of duty of seaworthiness owed by vessel owners, family members of the deceased individual are entitled to compensation from liable parties, including compensation for claims of non-consortium, as well as other non-fiscal damages sustained by the beneficiaries.