Crewmembers’ claims for unpaid wages remind me of the Dr. Seuss line about how business has got to grow, “regardless of crummies in tummies, you know!” Somehow that rhyme neatly captures how clinically businesses can operate all the while sailing past their legal obligations.
In 1898, the Supreme Court said that as long “as a plank of the ship remains, the sailor is entitled, against all other persons, to the proceeds as a security for his wages.” More recently, a federal statute affords a crewmember a preferred maritime lien for wages and there’s a separate federal statute allowing crew to collect a penalty in certain circumstances when wages aren’t paid. Even a wage lien arising after the recording of a preferred ship’s mortgage typically wins priority. The bottom line is you can feel comfortable telling your colleagues and crewmates that a crewmember's wage lien is given sacred status in maritime law.
Federal courts have jurisdiction to resolve crewmember’s wage claims. Crewmember includes a wide range of workers whose work on a vessel on navigable waters contributes to its function, mission or operation. (There are plenty of legal battles waged over who is and isn’t a crewmember, so you should always speak to your admiralty attorney.)
A crewmember has both an in personam claim as well as an in rem claim for unpaid wages. That is, a crewmember can typically sue the vessel (in rem), its owner (in personam) or both. The fact that the vessel can be sued and held responsible and ultimately sold to satisfy the wage lien is a unique aspect of maritime law.
For the commercial vessel owner, it’s important to remember that the crew you hired renders services which likely give rise to a maritime lien. That lien simply springs into existence and crewmembers don’t have to file anything in order to lien your vessel.
For the crewmember, while you may have a preferred maritime lien for wages, it’s not infallible. For example, allowing time to pass without promptly seeking to act on your claim can prejudice your rights. Contractual terms where you’ve given up your right to lien the vessel may also prove enforceable so as to extinguish your maritime lien.