Vessel Owner Can Be Held Liable for Attack by Crewmember

Courts and lawmakers have long treated incidents at sea by different standards than those that apply on land. “Sailors lead a rough life,” courts have noted, observing that they are “more apt to use their fists than office employees.”

This characterization of maritime professions has been used as justification for not holding shipowners accountable for assaults found to be within the “usual and customary standards of the calling.” It is often only when a crew member exhibits a “savage and vicious nature” that the owner of the vessel will be held liable for the injuries when that crewmember attacks someone.

In a recent case, the team from Latti & Anderson LLP worked to persuade the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts that an attack at sea met the standard for liability.

A Crew Member’s Conduct Can Make a Vessel “Unseaworthy”

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the owner of a vessel owes an absolute duty to provide a vessel that is seaworthy. What does that mean? Courts have interpreted the seaworthy requirement to include:

  • The vessel must be “staunch and strong”
  • The vessel must be fitted with proper equipment
  • The equipment and vessel must be in “good order”
  • The vessel must carry a “sufficient and competent crew”

In the recent case, In re: Captain Juan, Inc., a crewmember murdered the first mate and injured another crewmember. So the question was whether this attack indicated a failure to provide a competent crew to make up a seaworthy vessel. If it could be demonstrated that the owner failed to provide a seaworthy vessel, the owner could be held liable and damages awarded for the crew member’s death.

Savage Disposition

If the crewmember who attacked others was determined to have a “savage disposition,” that would make the vessel unseaworthy. Courts have ruled that a savage disposition can be proven by presenting evidence of a “quarrelsome nature” or by the fact that a weapon was used by the attacker.

In this case, the crewmember attacked the 51 year old first mate with a 10-inch fishing knife that was part of the equipment used on board. Noting that a knife is “an unmistakably deadly weapon,” Chief Judge Patti B. Saris ruled the crewmember’s conduct to be “unprovoked murder” and this conduct showed the crewmember had a “vicious and savage disposition. This rendered the vessel unseaworthy.

$1.933 Million settlement after Limitation of Liability Trial

In this particular case, a Petition for Limitation of Liability was filed and after a trial on Limitation, the Court held that the owner lacked knowledge of the unseaworthy condition, and this allowed the owner to limit liability to the value of the vessel and cargo. However, Latti & Anderson also succeeded in showing that the value of the vessel should be expanded to include the $5 million fishing scallop permits, which enabled Claimants to recover far more in the settlement or trial than would have otherwise been available. Prior to a trial on damages, the case settled for $1.933 million.

Help for Mariners Injured at Sea

Latti & Anderson has a history of representing and recovering millions of dollars for crew members who have been physically and/or sexually attacked whether while performing his/her duties, working on deck, even while sleeping, by other crew members and captain.

At Latti & Anderson, LLP, our experienced team is dedicated to protecting the rights of those injured at sea. To talk to us about how we could help in your case, schedule a confidential consultation now.