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Thursday, June 1, 2023

'Midshipman-X' Revealed, Files Suit Against Maersk

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

June 14, 2022

Hope Hicks is Midshipman-X. (Photo courtesy Sanford Heisler Sharp)

Hope Hicks is Midshipman-X. (Photo courtesy Sanford Heisler Sharp)

A U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) midshipman who shook the maritime industry last year when, under the moniker "Midshipman-X," publicly described how she was raped by her superior officer while serving as an engine cadet aboard a Maersk cargo ship, has been revealed as Hope Hicks.

Hicks is one of two USMMA students being represented by Sanford Heisler Sharp and Maritime Legal Solutions, who said Tuesday they filed two related complaints in New York state court against Maersk Line, Limited alleging that company, a subsidiary of Danish shipping giant A.P. Moller-Maersk Group, failed to adequately protect midshipmen from sexual assault and sexual harassment while working aboard their ships as part of the USMMA’s Sea Year program, which sees students work on commercial ships for months at a time to gain practical shipboard experience.

The first complaint was filed on behalf of Hicks, and the second was filed on behalf of another USMMA student, "Midshipman-Y", who according to the complaint was so severely sexually harassed aboard a Maersk ship during her Sea Year that she slept clutching a knife for protection.

Hicks’ complaint alleges she was the only woman aboard her assigned Maersk-owned and -operated vessel Alliance Fairfax during her Sea Year in 2019 and that, while on board, she was raped by one of the ship’s top-ranking officers, a man more than 40 years her senior. According to the complaint, when Hicks confronted the officer, she was told no one would believe her if she made a report. According to the complaint, Hicks suffers from severe and ongoing emotional distress as a result of the traumatic events she experienced on the Maersk vessel.

Midshipman-Y’s complaint alleges that she experienced extreme sexual harassment, unwanted touching and discrimination while on board the same Maersk vessel two years later. According to the complaint, Midshipman-Y was severely sexually harassed by a crewmember who was known to other Maersk officers and crewmembers as being violent. Although crewmembers and officers were allegedly aware of the harassment, no one intervened or reported the misconduct. The complaint further alleges that Midshipman-Y was treated less favorably than male crewmembers on account of her gender. Driven to desperation, at the first opportunity, Midshipman-Y begged USMMA representatives to get her off the ship prior to the completion of her required sea time. As a result of the traumatic experience, Midshipman-Y had to take an academic setback and is unsure if she will ever be emotionally capable of completing the USMMA.

According to both complaints, Maersk was aware of the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment on its ships. Specifically, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx suspended the Sea Year program in 2016 amid allegations of rampant sexual assaults and harassment of cadets during Sea Year voyages. Once reinstated, regulations required Maersk and other shipping companies participating in the Sea Year program to enact and enforce procedures to protect against sexual assault and harassment of USMMA midshipmen aboard their vessels.

"What happened to Hope and Midshipman-Y was both foreseeable and preventable by Maersk," said Steven J. Kelly, partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp and counsel for plaintiffs. "Maersk acknowledged that it owes a special duty of care to USMMA cadets, yet even after the Sea Year program was reinstated in 2017, Maersk failed to implement and enforce adequate policies and procedures to protect these young women."

Hicks' complaint further alleges that even after the 2016 temporary suspension of the Sea Year program, Maersk was complacent about its sexual assault and harassment prevention duties and that one of Hicks' Maersk supervisors tasked her with logging onto a computer and completing the required sexual assault and harassment training on behalf of a number of other crew members.

The complaints assert that Maersk’s conduct violates the Jones Act because plaintiffs’ injuries were directly caused by Maersk’s negligence and failure to provide a seaworthy vessel. Hicks' complaint also alleges a violation of the New York Human Rights Act, while Midshipman-Y’s’ complaint alleges violations of the New York Human Rights Act and Title VII. The complaints request a jury trial.

A spokesperson for Maersk Line, Limited said the company just received the information on the pending lawsuits and will now review the documents.

"Maersk Line, Limited would like to reiterate that we have zero tolerance for assault, harassment or any form of discrimination on our vessels or in our company. We take all allegations of assault or harassment very seriously, and we remain committed to ensuring that the shipboard environment is safe, supportive and welcoming to all. As communicated to the entire Maersk and Maersk Line, Limited fleet, we will not tolerate any breach of our policies regarding the fair treatment of all personnel," the spokesperson said. "As a policy, we do not comment on pending litigation."

Following the publication of Midshipman-X's story, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg again suspended the Sea Year program in November 2021.

A representatives from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration (MARAD), which oversees USMMA, did not immediately respond to MarineLink's request for comment.

"Speaking up against a powerful corporation is intimidating, which is why, up to this point, Hope has declined to reveal her identity, opting instead to go by the moniker Midshipman-X," said Christine Dunn, partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp and counsel for plaintiffs. "But, today, Hope is publicly identifying herself in an effort to seek justice for the sexual assault and harassment that she, and others – like Midshipman-Y, endured aboard Maersk vessels."

Ryan Melogy, founder of Maritime Legal Solutions and co-counsel for plaintiffs, who is himself a USMMA graduate, noted that "For years there have been reports of widespread sexual assault and harassment in the maritime industry, yet nothing has changed. Now real change may finally be on the way thanks to the bravery of survivors like Hope and Midshipman-Y. These courageous young women are standing up, speaking out, and saying, 'This has got to stop!'"

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