Injuries to Seamen: Doctrine of Unseaworthiness

Despite recent technological developments that make it easier to transport goods from one place to another, the reality is that we will probably never replace ships that bring cargo across the ocean. Because shipping may never die, coastal cities in the United States like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and even Washington, D.C. will continue to have ports that accommodate cruise liners, shipping vessels, or smaller merchant boats.

It will also mean that people who work on those boats spend plenty of time at sea, where they face the constant possibility of getting hurt through an accident that was no fault of their own.

If you are a sailor and you get hurt while at sea, it raises an interesting legal question: What law dictates your situation and determines who should compensate you for your losses?

While many countries have adopted treaties that give sailors rights while on the high seas, the United States also has its own set of maritime laws that apply to oceangoing vessels and the people on them. Importantly, one of those maritime laws is the doctrine of unseaworthiness, which injured sailors on U.S. vessels can use to get the compensation that they need for injuries suffered during the course of their employment. However, making this doctrine work for you often takes an attorney who is fluent in the complexities of maritime law, like those at the Maryland law office of Gilman & Bedigian.

Maritime Law and Where It Comes From

One of the most important aspects of a country is its laws. However, those laws cannot stretch beyond a country's boundaries without triggering interesting and potentially awkward conflicts between countries. Nearly two-thirds of the Earth lies outside a country's borders: The ocean. Just because it is not within a country's borders, however, does not mean that people who sail across it will never get hurt or need the protection of a country's laws. In fact, there are numerous situations or potential conflicts on the high seas that will require a set of laws to resolve disputes, including:

  • Who should bear the losses or the costs of injuries if a ship is attacked;
  • The costs of a collision between two or more boats in international waters;
  • Who has the risk of loss when cargo goes missing while being shipped across the sea; and
  • Who is liable to sailors for injuries that happen within the scope of their employment while onboard a ship.

To help resolve these problems, many different countries have signed treaties with each other or developed their own sets of maritime law, if the issues involve only domestic parties. Some of these international treaties have come from the efforts of the United Nations, which created the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 1958 to draft regulations for other nations to sign on to. These regulations impact such important issues as maritime security, environmental issues that international shipping can impact or exacerbate, and even safety measures onboard oceangoing vessels. While it took 16 years from its inception to become an effective advisory body to the UN, the IMO has created numerous treaties that have widespread legal impact, including the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, and the Maritime Pollution Regulations.

These treaties, however, are in the realm of public international law, and so only deal with disputes between sovereign nations.

In the U.S., the Constitution expressly provides federal courts the authority they need to handle legal issues that happen in the ocean. This has led courts to develop a series of cases that have built on each other to create precedent and set rules of conduct – the process of common law – that are embodied in our country's maritime law. In addition, the U.S. Congress has also passed laws that supplement this common law in areas that they deemed necessary and appropriate to intervene.

One of the most important laws that the U.S. Congress has passed in maritime law is the Jones Act, which regulates a variety of issues that can happen in maritime commerce between ports in the U.S. or in U.S. waters. The Jones Act also sets the rights of sailors on vessels when they get hurt while in the course of their job.

However, these laws made and passed by Congress are only a tiny part of the law of admiralty. According to the Supreme Court of the United States, “no area of federal law is judge-made at its source to such an extent as is the law of admiralty.” Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc. Out of the huge number of rules in admiralty that have come about through the process of common law, one of the most important has been the doctrine of unseaworthiness, which helps sailors who have gotten hurt because of a problem onboard the ship they were serving.

The Doctrine of Unseaworthiness

At its core, the doctrine of unseaworthiness requires a shipowner “furnish a vessel and appurtenances reasonably fit for their intended use” to the sailors on the boat. Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc. Importantly, this duty of the shipowner cannot be delegated to someone else – if the boat is not reasonably fit for its intended use, then the shipowner is the one who will be held liable for the cost of any accidents or injuries that happen as a result. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the fact that the duty of making a vessel seaworthy is not something that can only be violated through a shipowner's negligence – it was an “absolute duty” that could be violated “irrespective of fault and irrespective of the intervening negligence of crew members.” Miles v. Apex Marine Corp.

This was not always the case. Before 1944, hurt sailors who wanted to recover for injuries suffered onboard ship under the doctrine of unseaworthiness had to prove that the shipowner was negligent. This involved proving that the shipowner was actually at fault for the ship's condition that caused their injuries. It also opened up the possibility for the shipowner to argue that the injury was really caused by the hurt sailor's own negligence or by the negligence of one of the other shipmen, which would let the shipowner avoid liability.

However, the Supreme Court changed how the doctrine of unseaworthiness worked in the 1944 case Mahnich v. Southern Steamship Co. In that case, Mahnich was a seaman onboard the vessel Wichita Falls. He was painting the bridge of the ship while standing on a plank of wood held aloft by a sling of rope connected to either side of the plank and wound around the bridge. The rope was rotted, though, and broke, leading to severe injuries when he fell off. While lower courts prevented his recovery for his injuries under the doctrine of unseaworthiness, the Supreme Court disagreed, emphasizing that shipowners were strictly liable for injuries that happened on their boats and that the usual rules of negligence and personal injury law were different.

Since Mahnich, the Supreme Court has continued to emphasize the differences between the usual rules of negligence and the doctrine of unseaworthiness.

Unseaworthiness Does Not Have to Result from Negligence

In typical personal injury cases, victims need to show that the party they are trying to recover compensation from was negligent. This means that the defendant in the case:

  • Had a legal duty to keep the victim safe or free from harm;
  • Breached that duty; and
  • Caused the victim's injuries through that breach.

Proving that someone was acting negligently when you got hurt is not easy. It requires proof that they should have been acting differently, and that their poor conduct was what was behind the accident that caused your injuries.

However, the Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that negligence has nothing to do with the doctrine of unseaworthiness, even claiming that its unseaworthiness cases that it had ruled on before the 1944 decision of Mahnich were distinct from negligence cases. In the 1960 case Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., the Court claimed that it had been saying, as early as 1903, that the “duty to provide a seaworthy ship depends not at all upon the negligence of the shipowner or his agents.”

Instead, the doctrine of unseaworthiness is one of strict liability, where a shipowner is held liable for the injuries of shipmen “without fault.” Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki. The doctrine relies on a view that “unseaworthiness is a condition, and how that condition came into being – whether by negligence or otherwise – is quite irrelevant to the owner's liability for personal injuries resulting from it.” Usner v. Luckenbach Overseas Corp. This puts the cost of recovery for an injured shipman squarely on the shoulders of the shipowner, if the injury happened from the unseaworthy condition of the ship or one of its appurtenances.

Vessels and Appurtenances Under the Doctrine of Unseaworthiness

The doctrine of unseaworthiness can make shipowners liable for injuries that result from their providing a defective or inadequate “vessel” or an “appurtenance” of the vessel.

While it rarely is an issue in a maritime law case for injuries sustained due to an unseaworthy boat, what exactly constitutes a “vessel” can be tricky. The Supreme Court, in 1959, seemed to lay out a pair of important factors in determining whether a boat was considered a “vessel” that needed to be seaworthy. In that case, West v. U.S., the employee of an independent contractor was hurt while repairing a U.S. vessel, the S.S. Mary Austin, while it was in the Navy's “mothball fleet.” The goal of the repairs was to prepare the ship for sea duty, once again. In determining that the boat was not a “vessel,” thereby preventing the hurt worker from using the doctrine of unseaworthiness as a method of recovery for his injuries, the Court looked to the nature and magnitude of the repair work that was to be done, as well as the status of the ship, rather than the exact role that the worker had while on the boat. Even though the hurt worker was doing the kind of repair work that was traditionally done by seamen onboard ship, the ship itself was out of commission, thereby making it not a “vessel” for the doctrine of unseaworthiness. A later Supreme Court case found that the “general rule… is that vessels undergoing repairs or spending a relatively short period of time in drydock” are still “vessels” for the doctrine of unseaworthiness, “whereas ships being transformed through ‘major' overhauls or renovations are not.” Chandris Inc. v. Latsis.

Similar issues surround the notion of a vessel's “appurtenance.” The shipowner's absolute duty to provide a boat that is “reasonably fit for its intended use” extends to the gear on that boat. An excellent example was the Mahnich case, where the shipowner was held liable under the doctrine of unseaworthiness for the defective rope that caused the seaman to fall from the bridge.

Less obvious is the notion that the appurtenances of a vessel also include the other seamen on a boat. In Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., one shipman repeatedly stabbed and killed another while their boat was docked. In the wrongful death lawsuit that followed, it was claimed that the shipowner was liable under the doctrine of unseaworthiness because the shipman that did the killing had such a propensity for violence made him unfit for service on the boat and that this put the other sailors in danger. The Supreme Court agreed, holding shipowners liable under the doctrine of unseaworthiness for injuries that resulted from sailors who were unfit to serve onboard a vessel.

Unseaworthiness and “Reasonably Fit for Its Intended Use”

Of course, shipowners are not financially liable for every mishap that happens on a ship. However, the owners of a boat are legally required to make sure that the vessel is in a seaworthy condition before it leaves the harbor, such that it and everything on it are working up to standard. As the Supreme Court said in Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc. after explaining how the doctrine of unseaworthiness worked,“what has been said is not to suggest that the owner is obligated to furnish an accident-free ship. The duty is absolute, but it is a duty only to furnish a vessel and appurtenances reasonably fit for their intended use.”

Needless to say, this raises two issues:

  1. What is the intended use of the vessel and its appurtenances?
  2. What is required to make the vessel and its appurtenances reasonably fit for that use?

As a result, whether a shipowner has violated the requirements of the doctrine of unseaworthiness depends in large part on what the boat is used for. Large shipping boats that haul dozens of massive containers have a different intended use than a small fishing boat. What makes the fishing boat reasonably fit for its intended use would likely fall far below what would be required for the shipping vessel.

Only “Seamen” Can Use Doctrine of Unseaworthiness

Another important aspect of the doctrine of unseaworthiness is that it only applies to “seamen.” However, the law regarding what, exactly, a “seaman” is has been convoluted.

At one point, a sailor was only considered a “seaman” for purposes of the doctrine of unseaworthiness if they had signed an employment contract with the shipowner. However, the Supreme Court changed that idea in 1946 in the case Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, when a stevedore who was working for an independent contractor got hurt while loading a boat at the dock. The Court decided that, because the victim was “in short, a seaman because he is doing a seaman's work and incurring a seaman's hazards.” Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki.

However, following Sieracki, the U.S. Congress passed the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, which set out the statutory scheme for how longshoremen could get compensation for injuries suffered at work. One amendment to this law, passed in 1972, expressly abolished the ability of longshoremen to get recovery from shipowners through the doctrine of unseaworthiness. 33 U.S.C. § 905(b).

Where You Can Enforce Your Rights Under the Doctrine of Unseaworthiness

Because the U.S. Constitution, in Article III, Section 2, provides non-exclusive jurisdiction in maritime cases to the U.S. federal courts, most cases that seek recovery for injuries onboard ship under the doctrine of unseaworthiness begin in a U.S. District Court.

However, because the jurisdiction over maritime claims in federal courts is non-exclusive, some can also be brought in state courts, as well.

When You Can Enforce Your Rights Under the Doctrine of Unseaworthiness

The statute of limitations prevents you from filing a lawsuit under the doctrine of unseaworthiness after a set period of time has elapsed, following your injury. The purpose of this is to ensure that the evidence that will be used in your case will be fresh. It also allows the person or people you are suing to repose after the statute has passed, knowing that they cannot face a lawsuit, anymore.

When it comes to the doctrine of unseaworthiness, the limitation period is three years. However, there are a small handful of situations that can make that period shorter or longer, making it crucially important to see a maritime law attorney well before three years have passed since the accident occurred that hurt you. 

Alternatives to Unseaworthy Claims

The doctrine of unseaworthiness is not the only way for injured sailors to gain the compensation they deserve after being hurt aboard ship. The Jones Act is another important law that allows hurt sailors a legal recourse to get that compensation, as well, incorporating the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) and applying it to sailors. Non-seamen can also get the compensation they need through the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act. Finally, injured sailors can make use of the doctrine of maintenance and cure as a way to get the help they need after being hurt while in the scope of their work onboard a vessel.

Maryland Maritime Law Attorneys at Gilman & Bedigian

If you get hurt while onboard a ship, there is no reason why you should not get the compensation that you need and deserve to make a full recovery. This is especially true if the boat you were on, or the gear that you used while on that boat, was defective or unsafe. In those cases, it was the shipowner's responsibility to keep you safe, and they failed to do so. Holding them liable for your injuries is only reasonable.

Call the Maryland law office of Gilman & Bedigian at (800) 529-6162 or contact them online to enforce your rights under the doctrine of unseaworthiness.

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If someone you are close to has been seriously injured or worse, you are naturally devastated not only by what has happened, but by the effect that the injury or loss has had on you and your family. At a time when you're vulnerable, traumatized and emotionally exhausted, you need a team that will support you through the often complex process that lies ahead.

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