Mariners safely board and disembark vessels everyday. Occasionally, however, accidents happen. 

Depending on where or how a slip, trip or fall occurs while transiting to or from a vessel, the potential liabilities can be subject to different legal standards.

Under general maritime law, a vessel owner has a fundamental duty to provide its crewmembers with a reasonably safe means of getting on and off the vessel. Just a slight breach of this duty can result in liability for the vessel owner. The duty owed to non-seamen is less onerous and is that of “reasonable care.”

But maritime law does not impose any particular duty on a dock owner when it comes to safe vessel ingress and egress. That doesn’t mean, however, that a property owner cannot be held liable for accidents or injuries that occur on its dock, pier or wharf when someone is boarding or disembarking a vessel. In this case, state law governs the property owner’s liability. 

While the legal standards for dock owners can vary by state, liability is typically determined under general negligence principals.  

State laws typically require that shoreside facilities take reasonable precautions to prevent accidents and injuries to those who will use its docks to get on or off vessels. 

A recent First Circuit Court of Appeals case out of Massachusetts (Cracchiolo v. Eastern Fisheries Inc.) recognized that the owner and leaseholder of a pier could be legally responsible for the fatal accident to a fisherman who slipped and fell on an icy area of its dock, which was described as “obviously hazardous.”

The routine nature of boarding and disembarking from vessels doesn’t mean that it is less risky to even experienced mariners. 

Because both maritime and state laws impose legal obligations on vessel operators and property owners, careful attention should be paid to the methods vessel personnel use for boarding and disembarking to avoid accidents and mitigate liability exposure. 

A collection of stories from guest authors.