For incidents and accident occurring in a maritime environment, maritime law, otherwise used interchangeably at times with admiralty law, will dictate the procedures and pathway for resolving civil disputes emanating from negligence on the high seas. While maritime law remains to this day a unique facet of the total American legal system featuring federal jurisdiction for nearly all claims originating on the high seas, for plaintiffs and defendants embroiled in litigation relating to an offshore incident, maritime law becomes highly complex, oftentimes subject to even practically unwritten laws and regulations applicable to the sea. The basis of unseaworthiness claims essential rests on the foundational notions found in the traditional laws of the sea that a captain or vessel owner is ultimately liable should a craft or vessel be found by admiralty courts to be unseaworthy, later causing injuries to passengers or crew. This duty of seaworthiness of vessel that is owed by a vessel owner or captain has an evolved legal history in the United States, however, when considering whether or not to file claims under the seaworthiness related act, drawing from case law will prove helpful.
Determining Unseaworthiness Broadly, Per the US Supreme Court
In short, per the McFadden v Blue Star Line (1905), the bar for assigning negligence liability to a vessel owner or captain asks whether a prudent vessel owner or captain would have gauged or assessed the prudent level of seaworthiness of a given ship immediately before a given accident or incident.
Implied Warranties of Seaworthiness Found in US Law
With a maritime law tradition stretching back perhaps several centuries, a formal foundation of maritime obligations under the seaworthiness doctrine lacked formal codification in the US until the turn of the 20th century. Under the 1906 Marine Insurance Act, which sought to provide comparable protections to maritime workers in the workplace commensurate with those conferred upon continental workers, section 39.1 holds that there exists an implied warranty in any maritime transit that holds that vessel owners and captains can be held liable for bringing out to sea on voyage a vessel that is unseaworthy for the proposed and likely dangers of the maritime route ahead.
Further augmenting this seaworthiness related act are international maritime laws Section 3 of the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act of 1971 and Rule one (1) of Article (3) of The Hague-Visby Rules, which in short collectively provide for explicit requirements for vessel owners and employers to make ships seaworthy, provide ample crew and supplies for the voyage forthcoming, and provide a litany of other protections for passengers, travelers, and even, cargo.
Finding Appropriate Legal Remedies under the Seaworthiness Law
Should an injured party from a maritime incident seek to remedy their outstanding damages, filing claims in civil court under the doctrine of seaworthiness may be a viable solution. With jurisdiction and venue most likely under US maritime law and in US admiralty courts, and specific rules applicable to claims filed under the seaworthiness doctrines, the following individuals should exhaust their legal options under the following principles or forums potentially before considering filing suit under seaworthiness doctrines applicable in modernity, including:
- Any maritime death, including those of passengers, crewmembers, or other personnel on the vessel, would likely find an appropriate forum under the Death on the High Seas Act
- Injured maritime workers working predominantly at sea on a ship would probably first consider filing claims under the Jones Act, which once resolved, may require filing an additional civil suit against liable parties to recover additional or uncompensated damages
- Injured harbor or longshoreman workers would also file claims and go through the compensation process found under the seaworthiness implied doctrines found in e Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act
- Finally, determinations of negligence are highly predicated on case-specific factors, and as such, determining whether real negligence or breach of the duty of seaworthiness owed must be scrutinized carefully in the context of the case prior to filling, as certain routes to compensation for losses at sea noted above do not force plaintiffs or claimants to meet a traditional civil burden of proof to establish negligence, yet still provide compensation benefits.
Attributes of Claims Filed under Doctrine of Seaworthiness
If a claims case is ultimately pursued under the grounds of a breach of the seaworthiness doctrine, plaintiffs have only three (3) years to file formally suit under maritime law statutes of limitation, or if unmet, the plaintiff’s ability to recover damages is essentially vitiated. Secondly, any claims cases under the seaworthiness doctrine will not provide plaintiffs the option to a jury trial. Third, claims emanating as wrongful death or relating to injuries sustained by crewmember or seamen most likely will incur a relatively short two (2) year statutes of limitation period.
However, one of the main attractions of filing claims under the seaworthiness doctrine stems from the ability of most plaintiffs, should their case-specific context warrant it, is the ability of plaintiffs to recover larger categories of damages. Specifically, both economic and non-economic claims can be made, with further expansion of damage awards potentially recoverable in cases of workers injured, whose workers’ compensation or Jones Act-related claims failed to make the individual whole again in terms of the financial damages sustained as part of their employment.