Define ‘seaworthy’

The term has legal implications that even vessel owners may not grasp

To the average person on the street, and probably a fair number of boat owners, a vessel is considered to be “seaworthy” if it floats on water and can navigate from Point A to Point B.

However, in the realm of maritime law, an age-old body of law based primarily on court-crafted precedent, the meaning of seaworthiness is far more complicated. The oft-quoted legal jargon for the standard of seaworthiness is that a vessel must be “reasonably fit for its intended purpose.”

That definition is wide open to far flung interpretation, and the well-established body of case law demonstrates that the issue of seaworthiness is rarely black and white.

A more common definition is a vessel that is constructed, outfitted, manned, and in all respects fitted, for a voyage at sea.

A vessel with seemingly minor deficiencies, such as worn paint on a deck that makes it slippery, steps and ladders that are not evenly spaced, or even the questionable competence of a crew.member, can expose a vessel owner to legal liability to its crew for breach of the duty of seaworthiness.

While the standard for seaworthiness is not perfection, even minor problems with a vessel’s condition can spell trouble from a legal standpoint. Routine inspections and thorough maintenance practices can make the difference between a vessel with what appears to be an insignificant problem that results in its unseaworthiness, versus a vessel that is tight, staunch and strong, and in all respects seaworthy to the letter of the law.

Because a vessel owner’s duty to ensure seaworthiness cannot be delegated, any vessel owner who does not take extraordinary care to maintain the vessel’s equipment for the safety and benefit of the crew runs the risk of liability exposure. When in doubt, consult with marine surveyors, insurance experts and legal practitioners who can help to make your compliance with the duty to provide a seaworthy vessel more attainable.

About the author

Daniel J. Hoerner

Daniel J. Hoerner is a maritime attorney with Mouledoux, Bland, Legrand & Brackett LLC.

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