The Doctrine of Unseaworthiness

There are three principle causes of action available to seaman who are injured or fall ill in service of the vessel: maintenance and cure, the Jones Act, and the unseaworthiness doctrine. Generally, maintenance and cure is the provision of medical treatment and a daily living allowance while the ill or injured seaman is recovering. The Jones Act allows injured seamen to recover directly from their employers if their injuries were caused by the vessel owner’s negligence or the negligence of the crew. For more information on these topics, see our maintenance and cure and the Jones Act pages.

What is the unseaworthiness doctrine?

The vessel and its operator owe seamen an absolute duty to provide a “seaworthy” vessel, which is a vessel and its appurtenances which are suitable for their intended use. Generally, this means that anything that is part of the vessel or that is used in connection with the vessel must be in proper and safe working order. As discussed below, the unseaworthiness doctrine also requires an adequate crew. The vessel owner is liable for injuries caused by unseaworthy conditions.

What does it mean for a vessel to be “unseaworthy”?

The term “unseaworthy” in maritime law has a much more expansive meaning than in common usage. For example, an unseaworthy condition could be the lack of non-skid on deck, a slippery substance on the rungs of a ladder, or a drawer in the galley that slides open with the ship’s movement. The following categories are common types of unseaworthiness:

  • Worn out equipment or fixtures (e.g. the rubber feet at the bottom of a ladder are missing or worn-through)
  • Lack of proper equipment or fixtures (e.g. no fall protection or other safety equipment onboard when work is being done at a height)
  • Improperly designed equipment or fixtures (e.g. a padeye fixed in the middle of a walkway)
  • Tripping or slipping hazards (e.g. an oil slick on deck or a rope left in a pathway)
  • Lack of safe access between the vessel and shore (e.g. an unsafe gangway or the lack of a gangway)
  • Lack of proper warnings (e.g. no posted warning at the opening of a confined space)

In addition to unseaworthy conditions that are physically linked to the vessel (such as an oil slick on deck), part of the duty to provide a seaworthy vessel is to provide an adequate crew. The following categories are common types of unseaworthy conditions related to the crew:

  • Breach of safety rules (e.g. failure to comply with Coast Guard or OSHA regulations)
  • Lack of a properly trained crew (a vessel can be unseaworthy if the vessel owner failed to properly train the injured seaman or other crewmembers in performance of their duties)
  • Insufficient crew to perform the task at hand (e.g. only two crewmembers provided to perform a task that should have four crewmembers to be completed safely)
  • Working excessive hours (e.g. a captain working in excess of 12 hours per day)
  • Insufficient supervision (e.g. no oversight over a deckhand who is performing a task for the first time)
  • The absence of safety procedures (e.g. no procedure in place to determine when fall protection equipment must be used)
What happens when the duty has been breached?

If a seaman’s injury or death was caused by an unseaworthy condition, the seaman (or his surviving family in death cases) is entitled to recover from the vessel owner. Types of damages available on an unseaworthiness claim include loss of income, medical expenses, pain and suffering, compensation for disability, and other damages available under maritime law.

How does the unseaworthiness doctrine interact with the Jones Act?

Although there is significant overlap between the Jones Act and the unseaworthiness doctrine, each provides distinct remedies for injured seamen.

The first major difference relates to the money damages injured seamen are able to recover on a Jones Act claim versus an unseaworthiness claim. The Jones Act provides specific limited damages, whereas under the doctrine of unseaworthiness seamen may recover any damages traditionally available under general maritime law. This is significant because Jones Act recovery is limited to past and future loss of income, medical expenses, pain and suffering, and disability. In Jones Act death claims, a seaman’s surviving family members may recover only for the seaman’s conscious pain and suffering, and monetary losses related to the death (e.g. loss of financial support for a child or spouse). On an unseaworthiness claim, an injured seaman or a deceased seaman’s survivors are entitled to all the remedies available under the Jones Act and then some. Additional remedies available on an unseaworthiness claim include but are not limited to loss of consortium (for spouses and children), and in death cases, additional non-monetary losses.

The second important distinction relates to what an injured seaman has to prove in order to prevail on a Jones Act versus an unseaworthiness claim. The vessel owner’s duty to provide a seaworthy vessel is absolute, which means that in order to establish unseaworthiness, an injured seaman need only show that the condition existed and was a substantial cause of his injury in order to prevail. This is important because an injured seaman is entitled to recover for injuries caused by an unseaworthy condition even if the vessel owner had no knowledge of the condition and the condition was not caused by negligence. In practice, usually unseaworthy conditions only arise where there is negligence, but the injured seaman does not need to prove negligence in order to recover damages. The Jones Act, on the other hand, is a negligence-based remedy and in order to prevail, the injured seaman must prove negligence.

A third difference between the Jones Act and the unseaworthiness doctrine is that there is no right to a jury trial on an unseaworthiness claim alone. In contrast, the Jones Act allows seamen to demand a jury. As a practical matter, Jones Act and unseaworthiness claims are almost always brought against the vessel owner as part of the same lawsuit, so most seamen bringing unseaworthiness claims are able to demand a jury through the Jones Act (under the law, if any of the seaman’s claims provide a right to a jury, he can demand that a jury decide all the claims in the same lawsuit).

How does the unseaworthiness doctrine interact with maintenance and cure?

Maintenance and cure is a no-fault remedy which provides injured seamen with medical expenses, wages to the end of the voyage or season, and room and board expenses while the seamen is recovering from an illness or injury which manifested while the seaman was in service of the vessel. Seamen are entitled to maintenance and cure whether or not their illness or injury was caused by their employer or a fellow crewmember.

Seamen are only entitled to damages under the unseaworthiness doctrine where their injuries were caused by unseaworthiness, and the damages available may not duplicate maintenance and cure benefits. For example, if a seaman gets his medical expenses paid as part of cure, he cannot recover for those same expenses a second time as part of an unseaworthiness claim. His recovery of medical expenses on the unseaworthiness claim is limited to medical expenses beyond those covered by cure. Similarly, a seamen may recover past lost wages as part of an unseaworthiness claim, but the calculation of lost wages does not begin until the end of the voyage or season when the seaman is no longer entitled to unearned wages.

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