The doctrine of unseaworthiness is a feature of the general maritime law. A vessel owner owes seamen a strict and absolute duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. A seaworthy vessel is one that is reasonably fit for its intended use.
The unseaworthiness defendant is the vessel owner or the operator if the operator has “full possession and control” over the vessel. Unlike the Jones Act claim which is against the seaman’s employer, an unseaworthiness claim is made against the vessel’s owner. In many cases, those two will be the same.
An unseaworthiness claim against the vessel owner may be combined with a Jones Act claim against the seaman’s employer. Both claims must be filed within 3 years of the injury. If an unseaworthiness claim is joined with a Jones Act claim, the plaintiff may ask for a jury trial on the unseaworthiness claim as well as the Jones Act claim.
The duty to provide a vessel that is reasonably safe extends to all parts of the vessel and to almost all facets of its operation. The fact that the unseaworthy condition occurred after the vessel left port is immaterial. It is no excuse that the vessel owner had no notice of or opportunity to correct the condition that caused the injury; liability still will exist. The warranty of seaworthiness is absolute, continuing, and non-delegable. It extends to all parts of the vessel, including the hull, appliances, appurtenances, gear and equipment, even the vessel’s manpower. Unfit crew members constitute an unseaworthy condition. In addition, temporary conditions such as oil, water, or ice on the deck, known as transitory unseaworthiness, provides a basis for a recovery.
An unseaworthy condition can be created by employees of the owner or even independent contractors.
The warranty of seaworthiness imposed by the operation of law on a vessel owner or operator is a powerful tool to protect the rights of seamen. Experienced maritime counsel should be retained in these cases.