When Is a Vessel Unseaworthy?

December 29, 2017

If a loved one died at work aboard an offshore vessel in Texas, a few maritime laws may affect your wrongful death claim. Unlike land-based workers, fatally injured workers at sea do not qualify for workers’ compensation under state or federal laws. Instead, surviving family members must seek compensation through the Jones Act and maritime laws. Recovery often depends on proving negligence so retaining the services of an experienced Jones Act lawyer is crucial. In the event that an investigation shows an unseaworthy vessel, the surviving family may be able to recover damages from the owner of the vessel for negligence.

An “unseaworthy” vessel is one that does not provide seamen with a safe and suitable environment to perform his/her work. A vessel is seaworthy if its “hull, equipment, and crew are reasonably adequate” in terms of vessel design and maintenance. An unseaworthy vessel may still be able to sail and navigate. It doesn’t have to be at risk of sinking to be unseaworthy. Under maritime law, unseaworthy simply means the vessel does not provide seamen with a safe place to work. Any health or safety hazards onboard can make a vessel unseaworthy in terms of workers.

To win a wrongful death claim on the grounds of an unseaworthy vessel, the plaintiff would have to prove that some condition of the vessel or its equipment or crew was not in reasonable condition to serve its intended purpose. The plaintiff would then have to show causation between the unseaworthiness of the vessel and the employee’s death. With these elements in place, surviving dependents have grounds to sue the owner of the vessel for negligence.

Ship Owners’ Duties to Seamen

Texas is a major state for offshore employment. Oil and gas rigs off the coast of Texas employ thousands of men and women who spend weeks to months at a time working onboard vessels. Some of the largest oil/gas industry disasters have occurred in the Gulf off the shore of Texas. In an effort to reduce the number of injuries and deaths in the industry, maritime law mandates a non-delegable duty to ship owners, to furnish seamen with a seaworthy vessel. Any breach of this duty, resulting in employee death, is grounds for a wrongful death claim.

A ship owner’s duties include making sure the vessel has adequate navigation and safety equipment, as well as a fully trained and capable crew. The vessel must not contain any elements that pose a threat to worker safety, including slip and fall hazards, toxic substances or fumes, water leaks, or worn-down/defective equipment. If a vessel does contain an unsafe condition that kills a worker, their surviving family members can potentially sue both the owner of the vessel and the employer.

If the owner of the vessel and the company are the same entity, the family will only have one defendant to sue. If, however, the owner is a separate person, the case can name both parties as separate defendants – the owner for failure to maintain a safe vessel, and the employer for failing to ensure the safety of its workers. Maritime worker claims involving unseaworthy vessels require a knowledge of related laws and the Jones Act. For your best chance at securing compensation for the recent death of a loved one offshore, work with our Jones Act lawyers at Morrow & Sheppard LLP. Call our office at (800) 489-2216 for a free consultation today.

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