Assessing Your Ship: Seaworthiness in the Eyes of the Maritime Law

A long, long time ago, a captain or seasoned crewman could look at the hull and rigging of a ship and determine whether or not the vessel was seaworthy. This was before the construction of sea vessels got complicated with computers and hydraulics and other complex systems. With all of today’s technology and construction improvements, a simple twice over with the eyes is not going to be a good judge of the craft’s seaworthiness. General maritime law can get a little complicated when it comes to seaworthiness and compensation for injury or losses at sea, so let’s explore seaworthiness.

What is Seaworthy?
Ask expert maritime accident attorneys and they’ll tell you that a seaworthy vessel is one that is reasonably fit for its purpose. This means that whether the boat is meant to carry shipping containers, passengers or garbage, the boat must safely transport them without incident. But whose shoulders does the responsibility of ensuring a seaworthy vessel fall on? The ship’s owner bears the burden. The owner has to provide a boat that can fulfil a voyage, accompanying gear that works as intended and a crew that can competently and effectively look after the ship. The owner is not obligated to furnish the most up to date and top of the line equipment and gear, however. It should be noted that a boat doesn’t have to be in danger of sinking to be deemed unseaworthy.

Who is Owed a Seaworthy Vessel?
Although many would believe that everyone on board any boat would need to have a seaworthy vessel, the only persons legally guaranteed a seaworthy vessel are the crew members. Passengers and other maritime workers are not owed the guarantee of a seaworthy vessel. Since a vessel owner is obligated to provide a competent crew, vetting employees and crewmen is very important, as an incompetent crew member can render a vessel unseaworthy. Liability and compensation for losses may be covered under the Jones Act or the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.

Even if a boat was seaworthy when it started the voyage, there are conditions such as ice on equipment and grease in the galley that can render a ship unseaworthy. These and others like it are called transitory conditions and an owner can be held liable for the injury of a crew member due to these transitory conditions regardless of fault. An owner cannot cite ignorance or lack of control over conditions as a defense should something go wrong on the ship. In the event that an incompetent crew member creates an unseaworthy vessel, the owner is still responsible.

As long as a ship has structural integrity, a competent crew and is properly maintained with adequate equipment, it is deemed fit for duty. But this can change through the course of a trip. For this reason, maritime law can get really complex, as seaworthiness isn’t exactly black and white. Should you get injured or suffer losses while at sea, it’s best to contact a maritime lawyer to help you navigate through your claim.


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