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How Does the Unseaworthiness Doctrine Apply After an Accident?

by | Sep 18, 2022 | Blog, Workplace Accidents | 0 comments

Making an unseaworthiness claim allows workers to recover damages from the operator of an unsafe vessel where they suffered an injury. You have the right to compensation if you are a seaman hurt while working offshore on an unsafe vessel, though obtaining this compensation is not as easy as it often should be.

Contact a maritime rights lawyer to find out what you deserve. A maritime rights lawyer makes it easier for you to focus on recovery instead of protecting your rights or fighting for compensation alone. Let a maritime accident lawyer to navigate the path to compensation while you focus on recovering from your injuries.

The Unseaworthiness Doctrine

When seamen suffer an injury during their service on a vessel, they are eligible to take action in three distinct ways.

They are as follows:

The unseaworthiness doctrine is one law that enables offshore oil workers, harbor workers, longshore workers, and other sailors or seamen to pursue compensation from the owner of the ship they were serving when their injuries occurred. Rather than seeking compensation solely from their employer, this rule allows seamen to pursue compensation from the shipowner.

Bringing a claim under the unseaworthiness doctrine often involves leveraging the Jones Act. This act allows seamen to sue their employer for failing to offer a safe workplace. To levy such an action, a seaman must prove that the shipowner or employer failed to provide a reasonably safe working environment on their ship.

Through other claims, seamen stand to recover maintenance and cure, which provides medical treatment and living expenses to seamen as they push to recover from their injuries or illnesses.

Defining “Unseaworthiness”

A vessel with parts or equipment not in a condition appropriate for its intended purpose can be deemed unseaworthy. The vessel does not need to be at risk of sinking, nor must it be incapable of navigating waters. Furthermore, unseaworthiness does not imply that the entire ship is dangerous. Instead, minor aspects of the ship can be dangerous, and the unseaworthiness doctrine still applies.

For example, a vessel with a ladder that does not feature appropriate footholds or grip might make it unsafe to operate. This standard shows how a seemingly unimportant lack of proper functionality can make a ship unseaworthy.

Other examples of unseaworthiness include:

  • Heavily used and damaged equipment that no longer serves its intended purpose effectively.
  • Lack of correct equipment, such as safety gear
  • The presence of equipment that no longer works properly
  • Equipment installed in an improper way
  • Hazards that may cause a slip, trip, or fall accident
  • Improper signage that prevents workers from being warned of hazards

Improper Training

The physical state of a ship is not the only determining factor when it comes to unseaworthiness. If you are aboard a vessel, that vessel is subject to U.S. labor laws. Therefore, they must comply with all OSHA and Coast Guard regulations, including proper training requirements.

If workers do not receive proper training before they begin work on the vessel, an accident is more likely to occur. Therefore, the presence of untrained seamen makes the vessel unseaworthy. Likewise, having too few crew members or requiring too many work hours can lead to an unsafe work environment.

Unseaworthiness includes a lack of proper supervision and poor implementation of proper safety protocols. If any of these issues on the ship injure you, you may file a claim under the unseaworthiness doctrine. Not doing so will prevent you from recovering full compensation from your negligent employer.

Vessels Must Be Seaworthy if They Operate

unseaworthiness LawShipowners must, by law, provide a seaworthy vessel. If they go to sea without ensuring their ship is seaworthy, they will be subject to unseaworthiness doctrine claims. To succeed in an unseaworthiness doctrine claim, seamen must prove that an unseaworthy condition injured them. Doing so is not always easy and requires a maritime law attorney.

Keep in mind that plaintiffs do not have to display evidence that the shipowner’s negligence is what caused the ship to lose its seaworthiness. They also do not have to show that the shipowner was even aware that the ship was not seaworthy. On the other hand, with a Jones Act claim, the opposite is true. Seamen must prove that their injuries arose explicitly from the negligence of their employer or one of their workers to receive compensation under the Jones Act.

The Jones Act

What is the Jones Act? The Jones Act is a federal law that helps regulate maritime commerce in the U.S. Under this law, goods shipped within the U.S. must get transported on ships built, owned, and operated by U.S. citizens and permanent residents. This law primarily benefits merchant marines in the U.S.

The Jones Act is technically protectionist law. While it focuses on maritime commerce-related issues, it also offers seamen additional rights while working. These rights include the right to seek damages from the shipowners, captains, or crew members when work-related injuries happen. The Jones Act offers sailors protections that provide legal recourse when hurt aboard a vessel.

Jones Act versus Unseaworthiness Doctrine

It is possible to file claims under the Jones Act and the Unseaworthiness Doctrine simultaneously. If necessary, your attorney can pursue both claims. This advantage opens the possibility of recovering compensation from more than one avenue. Though the Jones Act only offers limited compensation opportunities to injured seamen, the unseaworthiness doctrine offers more robust compensation opportunities.

Specifically, the Jones Act entitles seamen to limited damages, including lost income, medical expenses, pain and suffering, and disability income. On the other hand, the unseaworthiness doctrine can support a claim for any damages available under law and applicable to your case.

9 ways to Know When a Vessel is legally Unseaworthy

The doctrine of unseaworthiness places a legal duty on shipowners. This duty is to provide safe and functional work environments for crewmembers and other people who occupy their vessels. When someone suffers injuries due to the unseaworthiness of a ship, the shipowners are subject to lawsuits and claims that seek to recover compensation for costs associated with said injuries.

To know when a ship is unseaworthy, look for these examples of unseaworthiness:

  1. Tools and equipment that are not safe
  2. Improper safety equipment
  3. Unsafe floor openings
  4. Trip hazards
  5. Lack of proper railings
  6. Unclean facilities
  7. Crews with improper training
  8. Poor ship maintenance
  9. Untrained ship doctors

1. Tools and equipment that are not safe

The unseaworthiness doctrine applies to more than just the ship itself. It also applies to appurtenances that are onboard the ship. Appurtenances are tools and equipment that workers use throughout the service period of the ship. Some examples include ropes, tools, equipment, and potentially cargo stored improperly. If you recognized unsafe appurtenances, the vessel where you suffered an injury was likely unseaworthy.

2. Improper safety equipment

The ship owners must provide crewmembers with safety equipment that protects them from undesirable outcomes that result in injury. If this safety equipment is not available, the ship should not go out to sea. This is primarily because federal regulations require ship owners to provide appropriate safety gear for their crewmembers.

When they choose not to provide the right gear, they are breaking the law and positioning crewmembers to file unseaworthiness claims when injured.

3. Unsafe floor openings

If there is a fall risk present on a ship, crewmembers must be made well aware of said risks. For example, if an opening on the floor leads to a stairwell, there should be proper signage denoting the presence of that opening. Crewmembers unaware of such floor openings risk falling and suffering severe injuries. If this happens, the shipowner can face an unseaworthiness doctrine claim.

4. Trip hazards

Regardless of whether you are on sea or land, trip hazards are never safe to leave around. A trip and fall accident can cause devastating injuries; therefore, it is imperative that shipowners clear any trip hazards before setting sail. For example, owners should monitor and adequately manage anchors, chains, and other trip hazards to avoid oil workers or other seamen tripping over them.

5. Lack of proper railings

Railings help people navigate ships while they are in motion. Without appropriate railings, someone may lose traction on the floor and fall. Worse yet, they can be flung from the ship and go overboard. When a vessel has a raised platform, these areas must always have proper railings for protection. Otherwise, seamen may fall and hurt themselves.

6. Unclean facilities

Often, many people live and work on a vessel at once. Hygiene and sanitation are critical with multiple people living in a single space. Critical illness can occur if owners do not keep the vessel adequately clean. Similarly, poor management of food and drinking water can result in sickness that requires medical attention.

7. Crews with improper training

Operating an oil rig or another ship requires a team of skilled professionals. Without proper talent aboard, your ship is not seaworthy. Even if you have the appropriate number of employees aboard, they will not be of great use to the operation if they do not have proper training.

They may also make mistakes that end up causing injury to another crewmember. For this reason, shipowners who allow employers to operate without training staff properly are at risk of being hit with a claim under the unseaworthiness doctrine.

8. Poor ship maintenance

Maintenance is a critical component of seaworthiness. Ships not adequately maintained are certainly not seaworthy. Owners must perform maintenance routinely on the engine, deck, cargo units, living quarters, and other vital features of the ship. Not performing proper maintenance can easily result in avoidable injuries.

9. Untrained ship doctors

Usually, ships have a doctor aboard. If the doctor on the ship has no training to deal with issues commonly found in seamen, an outsider might deem that doctor to have inadequate training. Seamen who suffered needlessly because the ship doctor was unfit to treat them deserve compensation for their additional suffering. Therefore, a ship that does not have a proper doctor can be unseaworthy.

Offshore Oil Rig Claims

If you were aboard an offshore oil rig when you suffered injuries, hire a lawyer to determine whether the vessel where you suffered an injury was seaworthy.

You may assume you don’t qualify for a jones act claim / unseaworthiness claim, but that is not always true. If you suffered an injury in a vessel subject to this doctrine, you have the right to seek compensation.

You might have a case if the oil rig you worked on did not meet other seaworthiness standards. To determine whether you may file an unseaworthiness or Jones Act claim, speak to a maritime rights lawyer. They should have the skills to help you navigate this complex legal process.

Experienced Maritime Rights Lawyers Are Here to Help

paula a wyatt attorney wyatt law firm san antonio

Maritime Accident Attorney, Paula A. Wyatt

You deserve compensation if a shipowner’s negligence or inaction injures you. To recover the compensation you need to pay your medical bills and live a reasonably comfortable life moving forward, you should take steps to file a claim under the unseaworthiness doctrine, the Jones Act, or for maintenance and cure.

When you reach out to a personal injury attorney, you can protect your rights immediately. You deserve compensation for injuries suffered in a maritime accident, and you lose out on the opportunity if you fail to file a claim within the statute of limitations. Do not let insurance companies, your employer, or anyone else tell you that you do not have the basis for a claim when a lawyer can provide you with an honest assessment.

Working on an offshore oil rig is lucrative but often risky work. Never face unnecessary risks of injuries due to an unseaworthy vessel. Take steps to hold shipowners accountable, which can provide you with compensation and protect future workers on the same vessel.