Ebola: Liability under the admiralty law?

You’ve got to work to separate the flotsam from the jetsam when it comes to the news media and no more so than their reporting on Ebola. Having said that, I don’t want to add to the speculation, but I do want to briefly address liability in the context of crew diseases.

Let’s say a crewmember suffers a potential Ebola exposure while working and he’s quarantined and thereafter found not to have the disease. Does a claim exist? Maybe. There are HIV exposure cases arising under the Jones Act where the claimants ultimately tested negative, but brought suit for emotional injury associated with the experience.

Of course, the outcome of these claims depends on the circumstances and at least one case involving possible HIV exposure allowed recovery without the typical physical manifestation predicate. The location where a suit is brought may have more of an impact on the outcome of these claims than is typically the case.

What about a crewmember aboard ship exhibiting Ebola symptoms? Would this render the ship unseaworthy? I believe a colorable argument exists based on the line of cases involving assault by fellow crew. Although the claim was denied, there’s a 1955 decision involving a contagious skin disease that ran wild through the crew such that the court employed the phrase “scurvy ship.” It seems to me that if the disease at issue in that decision was Ebola, the court would’ve taken a different look at the claim. As it was, the court didn’t seem to give much weight to what it seemed to view as a common skin affliction.

No doubt vessels continue to call at ports in the hot zone and cargo from the hot zone continues to be transshipped, making a discussion about the potential for maritime worker exposure academically viable. In my view, maritime businesses and workers would do well to give the issue some eyeballs and remember that history doesn’t seem to be all that nice during the first part of a new century.

Underway and making way. 

About the author

John K. Fulweiler

John K. Fulweiler is a licensed mariner and experienced admiralty attorney. He represents individuals and companies throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and has recently taken command of his own maritime law firm. He enjoys navigating the choppy waters of the maritime law, but readily admits to missing life on the water. He can be reached at john@fulweilerlaw.com . His website is www.saltwaterlaw.com.

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