Legal Beat: Unseaworthiness: The Vessel Owner's Absolute Duty To It's Crew

Monday, November 24, 2003

James P. Nader & Joseph A. Poblick

The hazards of maritime work and the perils of the sea in which seamen are forced to work are all too familiar. Admiralty courts have always served as protector of the seamen's welfare. In fact, no other employee in our society has such powerful weapons in their arsenal for relief in response to a work related accident. However, passengers, invitees, and guests aboard a ship are not entitled to the protection of the warranty of seaworthiness. The doctrine of seaworthines's incorporation into maritime law occurred in 1903 with the U.S. Supreme Court case, The Osceloa. The Supreme Court held that ship owners owe a duty to seamen to provide a seaworthy vessel. A vessel will be considered seaworthy only when all of its appurtenances and crew are reasonably fit for their intended purposes. The duty to provide a seaworthy ship is absolute.

In order for a seaman to prevail on a claim of unseaworthiness, the seaman must establish the following four elements: 1) the warranty of seaworthiness extended to him and his duties; 2) his injury was caused by a piece of the ship's equipment or an appurtenant appliance; 3) the equipment used was not reasonably fit for its intended use; and 4) the unseaworthy condition was the proximate cause of the injury, he must prove that, but for the unseaworthy condition he would not have been injured. The injury must be directly related to the unreasonable condition. Especially helpful to the seaman is the fact that a claim for unseaworthiness is not based in negligence, liability does not depend on fault or blame. If an owner does not provide a seaworthy vessel he is liable, regardless of the amount of care he has taken to prevent such occurrences. The vessel owner may not pass this duty to anyone else, it is his responsiblity. It does not depend on the exercise of reasonable care, negligence or even whether the vessel owner knew or should of know of the unseaworthy condition. If an injury occurred, and it is due to an unseaworthy condition, the vessel owner is liable. However, the mere fact that an injury occurs does not establish that the vessel was unseaworthy.

The conditions, which may render a vessel unseaworthy, are vast in number and difficult to predict. Especially considering the broad based requirement that for a vessel to be considered seaworthy its crew and appurtenances must be reasonably fit for their intended use. One would typically think of physical conditions of the vessel when considering unseaworthy conditions. However, the condition of the crew can also be an unseaworthy condition. A "grinding work schedule" which results in fatigue of the crew has been found by courts to render vessels unseaworthy. Additionally, an insufficiently manned crew can render a vessel unseaworthy. The operator of the vessel has a duty to assure that the vessel is not undermanned or incompetently crewed. An improperly manned vessel is unseaworthy as matter of law, according to one federal court. Failure to properly train and supervise has also been found to cause a ship to be unseaworthy. Of equal importance is the condition of crewmembers that are not equal in disposition and seamanship to ordinary men of the calling. What this means is that no one crewmember may have such a violent disposition that his mere presence on the vessel endangers the crew. However, the courts have considered fistfights to be among the ordinary risks that a seaman may face aboard a vessel. The vessel owner must assure that the ship is sufficiently manned with adequately trained men of normal disposition, or else face the possibility of the vessel being found unseaworthy.

As one would expect, conditions of the vessel itself often render a vessel unseaworthy. A vessel owner must provide a ship, equipment and appurtenances that are reasonably safe for their intended use. However, there is no requirement that they be perfect, only reasonably safe. Defective and unsafe appurtenances will render a vessel unseaworthy, if the appurtenance is related to the vessels primary function. However, personal equipment of the crew is not an appurtenance. Equipment installed in the personal areas of the ship and are not related to the vessel's primary purpose are not covered under the warranty of seaworthiness. Defective tools and gear may render a vessel unseaworthy if they are determined to be appurtenances of the ship. An improper or dangerous method of operation may create an unseaworthy condition. Insufficient supplies may render the vessel unfit. Courts have held that a vessel was unseaworthy because it was not properly stocked with cleaning supplies causing the cook, who was ordered to clean the stove and make it look like new, to injure himself as the result of long and difficult scrubbing. Steep and narrow steps aboard a vessel have been found to cause a vessel to be unseaworthy. Obstructions on deck may create an unseaworthy condition if there are no clear paths across the deck. Dangerous cargo must be safely contained and stowed to prevent potential hazards to crew members. Improperly stowed cargo may case a vessel to be unseaworthy. A slippery deck may be an unseaworthy condition if it is unreasonably slippery. Essentially, any unreasonable condition may lead to a finding of unseaworthiness.

Vessel Owner Defenses

There are limited defenses, which a vessel owner may raise to an unseaworthiness claim. Assumption of risk or contributory negligence will not prevent an injured seaman from recovering; however, the seaman's own negligence will be taken into account when determining damages. Consequently, the damages may be reduced according to the portion of fault attributable to the seaman. The defense that the vessel owner followed the customs and practice of the industry will not insulate them from liability. Furthermore, a seaman will not be able to recover for a temporary condition created solely by the seaman as a result of his own negligence or breach of his employment duty. If the unseaworthy condition is not the cause of the seaman's injuries he will not be able to recover against the vessel owner. The existence of an unseaworthy condition is irrelevant if it does not contribute to the seaman's injury. Ultimately, it became apparent that seamen have a low bar to hurdle in order to prove a breach of the warranty of seaworthiness.

The warranty of seaworthiness is not applicable to vessels, which are not in navigation. A vessel may be out of navigation if it is laid up for repairs. However, if it is only for short term pre-voyage repairs, then it may still be determined to be in navigation. A vessel which is permanently affixed to shore or has its propulsion equipment removed is not under the protection of the warranty. When a vessel is out of navigation the seaman is not faced with the perils of the sea and is not in need of the extra protection afforded under the warranty of seaworthiness.

The warranty of seaworthiness provides seamen with great protection and assurances while performing their duties. It protects them from those conditions that are out of their control. On the other hand it is a large burden, much like a 1,000 lbs. Gorilla on the back of vessel owners.

Especially, in light of the limited defenses available to them, as well of the potentially endless conditions, both natural and manmade which may render a vessel unseaworthy. In a nut shell, a vessel will be determined to be unseaworthy when it is insufficiently or defectively equipped. On the seas, rivers and waterways, danger lurks around ever turn, and vessels owners/operators must remain vigilant in order to protect against the overshadowing warranty of seaworthiness. As Homer Parson Grant once said, "We must free ourselves from the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds."

About the Authors

James Nader is a partner and Joseph A. Poblick is an associate with the law firm of Lobman, Carnahan, Batt, Angelle & Nader in New Orleans, La. Mr. Nader's trial practice over the last eighteen years has included Admiralty and Maritime Law, an area in which he is an adjunct professor at Tulane University. Mr. Poblick's primary practice areas include admiralty, maritime law, and insurance defense. For more information on the firm, please see it's Website at www.lcba-law.com, or contact them at 400 Poydras St., Suite 2300, New Orleans, LA 70130, phone (504) 586-9292.**

**This article is for general information and educational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice. The authors are available to discuss any specific questions or concerns regarding any issues related to this article.

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