Unseaworthiness is a term found in case law that refers to any unsafe condition occurring on a “vessel” that causes an injury. The duty to provide a seaworthy vessel is a longstanding function of General Maritime Law. It is the duty of the owner of the “vessel” to provide a safe place to work and violation of that duty can give rise to a claim or lawsuit by a worker who is injured due to the unseaworthiness of the vessel. The word “vessel” is in quotations because the definition is not limited to a ship or boat. There is a broad legal definition of “vessel” that includes offshore oilrigs and production platforms, barges with no motors or sleeping quarters, helicopters, moored casino boats and company transportation on land.
Unseaworthiness usually relates to conditions that could have been corrected or avoided by the company such as those caused by improper design, construction, inspection and maintenance of the work place. A vessel’s condition of unseaworthiness might arise from any number of circumstances. The gear might be defective, the appurtenances in disrepair or the crew unfit. The number of men assigned to perform a shipboard task might be insufficient. The method of loading the cargo, or the manner of its stowage, might be improper. For any of these reasons, or others, a vessel might not be reasonably fit for her intended service. “Unseaworthiness” is normally a question of fact to be determined by the jury. Worn anti-slip surfaces or surfaces that were never made “slip proof” are common causes of injuries to seamen and offshore workers. Many lifting injuries are actually the fault of slippery and improperly designed or maintained surfaces and decks.
Maritime workers must either prove unseaworthiness or slight negligence on the part of the owner of the vessel in order to qualify for a settlement or judgment for their injuries over and above maintenance and cure. Since the burden of proof is very light, a reputable maritime lawyer should be able to prove either unseaworthiness or slight negligence. A maritime worker should not attempt to guess whether or not the burden can be met. It is always advisable to talk to a maritime lawyer whether the issue is complex or simple.
A good example of the minimal burden of proof is found in the case of Cortes v Baltimore Insular Line, Inc. In defining the term “unseaworthiness”, the court held that the “ship owner’s negligent failure to comply with the absolute duty to furnish a seaworthy vessel reasonably fit for the intended voyage was the negligent failure that proximately caused an injury to the seaman. This absolute duty on the part of the ship owner leaves no wiggle room for ship owners or the owners of offshore oilrigs and production platforms. The employer must provide a safe “seaworthy” place of work and the failure to provide such a safe place to work makes the employer liable or responsible for injuries sustained by workers.”
Determining unseaworthiness is not for the seaman or maritime worker. This is a legal matter that is within the province of a maritime lawyer. Court decisions have spelled out specific conditions that meet the definition of unseaworthiness. These decisions were based upon actual cases brought before the court by maritime lawyers arguing on behalf of their clients. It is very likely that the doctrine of unseaworthiness will continue to expand and include other conditions aboard ships and other “vessels” covered by the Jones Act.
A few examples of unseaworthiness involve the:
- Structure of the vessel including safe materials for the construction of the vessel. Use of asbestos and the failure to remove asbestos is a good example of unseaworthiness.
- Poor design of a vessel can lead to instability in high seas or dangerous conditions, which cause injuries to workers.
- Lack of elevators and proper lifting equipment necessary to lift workers from crew boats or other transportation vessels onto ships or offshore oilrigs and production platforms.
- Lack of proper scaffolding, safety lines and other reasonable safety equipment.
- Decks including slippery decks and stairways.
- Ropes and lines.
- Bunk compartments, including lack of headroom, ladders to bunks, sleeping compartments and associated bedding.
- Galleys, cooking facilities, equipment and accessories.
- Proper food preparation and adequate provisions for workers.
- Hoists, pulleys, cranes, winches and other equipment.
- Hatches, doors, portholes and windows.
- All mechanized equipment whether or not related to ordinary ship functions.
- Medical treatment rooms, including supplies and equipment.