In the past, the maritime industry was overwhelmingly male-dominated, with virtually no women serving as seamen. This historical gender imbalance had significant implications for the laws and regulations governing seafaring conduct. Specifically, many of the legal frameworks that were established to protect maritime workers did not include provisions for issues that disproportionately affect women, such as sexual assault and sexual harassment. The absence of these protections reflected the previous social norms and the lack of female representation in the field.
As a result, the increasing number of women entering the maritime industry have found themselves in an environment that has not been designed with their specific vulnerabilities in mind, necessitating updates and revisions to existing laws to ensure their safety and well-being.
The harrowing stories of women maritime workers dealing with a pervasive and permissive culture of sexual assault and harassment prompted Congress to act in 2022 by introducing the Safer Seas Act. Enacted in December 2022, the Safer Seas Act was meant to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment in the maritime industry.
The Jones Act Negligence Claim for Recovery of Sexual Assault or Sexual Harassment
Maritime workers were left with limited options to hold the perpetrators of sexual assault and sexual harassment while at sea. Before the Safer Seas Act was passed, maritime workers relied upon The Jones Act, formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, to bring a claim against vessels and employers for sexual assault and sexual harassment while at sea.
The Jones Act requires vessel owners and employers of maritime workers to provide a reasonably safe place to work and a seaworthy vessel. If an employer becomes aware of a condition that might make the vessel unsafe and fails to address the condition, the employee has a negligence cause of action against the employer if that condition contributes to their injury. If the vessel is not seaworthy, the employee has an unseaworthiness claim against the employer.
The negligent cause of action provides injured workers an avenue to recover for damages sustained because of the unsafe working conditions on board a vessel. Determining whether injuries from sexual assault and sexual harassment on board a vessel relate to unsafe working conditions has been heavily debated in the Courts with often conflicting outcomes. Before the Safer Seas Act, a maritime worker bringing a Jones Act negligence claim for sexual assault or sexual harassment had to prove;
- The sexual assault or sexual harassment resulted in a physical injury or physical manifestation of an emotional injury;
- For recovery of emotional injuries, the maritime worker was in a “zone of danger” when the sexual assault or sexual harassment occurred.
The Jones Act Unseaworthiness Claims for Recovery for Sexual Assault or Sexual Harassment
In addition to potential Jones Act negligence claims, an injured maritime worker can also bring a claim for the “unseaworthiness” of a vessel. In contrast to a negligence claim, a maritime worker bringing a Jones Act unseaworthiness claim for sexual assault or sexual harassment has to prove;
- The sexual assault or sexual harassment resulted in a physical injury or physical manifestations of an emotional injury;
- The offending perpetrator had a wicked disposition, a propensity to evil conduct, or a savage and vicious nature.
Thus, the injured maritime worker only needs to prove that the ship itself was unsafe due to the perpetrator being on the ship, they do not have to show that the owner knew that the perpetrator would likely commit the offense.
Understanding the Changes Brought by The Safer Seas Act
The Safer Seas Act was an ambitious bill by Congress to change over 100 years of neglect on the issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment while at sea. As a result, the Safer Seas Act has sweeping new requirements including reporting, training, and surveillance requirements. Three of the most noteworthy changes include;
- The responsible entity of a vessel is to immediately report complaints and incidents of any “harassment, sexual harassment, or sexual assault”
- The reports have to be submitted to the Coast Guard Investigative Service via the CGIS Tips App or by emailing [email protected]
- Failure to report a complaint or incident comes with a potential civil penalty of $50,000
- Although initial reports are due immediately, a vessel owner or operator has 10 days to submit a more detailed report
Policies and Procedures to Prevent and Identify Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment
- Employers and employees will no longer be able to claim ignorance of the law regarding these sexual assault and sexual harassment issues
- The Act requires vessel owners to include policies and procedures regarding sexual assault and sexual harassment in their safety management systems.
- The Act also requires annual training on sexual assault and sexual harassment including information on prevention, bystander intervention, reporting, response, and investigation
Installation of Video Surveillance Systems
- Most sexual assault and sexual harassment incidents occur in private settings, making it hard to find impartial witnesses who can corroborate the victim’s account.
- In an attempt to allow for more evidence of these incidents, the Act requires non-passenger carrying, ocean-going, commercial vessels to install and maintain a video surveillance system with audio capability in areas adjacent to bedrooms and limit access to the surveillance to law enforcement officials and victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment
The Bottom Line of The Safer Seas Act
In summary, the Safer Seas Act is a comprehensive legislative effort to address the longstanding issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the maritime industry. It imposes new reporting, training, and surveillance requirements on vessel owners, operators, and employers, thereby enhancing the safety and well-being of all individuals aboard commercial vessels.
How a Maritime Attorney Can Help with Injury Claims
If you or a loved one have been a victim of sexual assault or sexual harassment while on board a vessel, contact a maritime attorney at Morrow & Sheppard LLP, who has experience handling Jones Act claims and is knowledgeable about the new Safer Seas Act, today to schedule your free, confidential consultation.