If you ask the average person on the street what a “seaworthy” vessel is, the person will probably say that a boat is seaworthy if it doesn’t leak, doesn’t have holes in the hull, or is capable of sailing without sinking.
A common perception of an unseaworthy vessel is the S.S. Minnow, a fictional charter boat from the hit 1960s TV show Gilligan’s Island, that washed up on a tropical island beach. But on the water and in the law, the meaning of unseaworthiness is far broader.
In general, a vessel is seaworthy if it and its appurtenances are “reasonably fit for their intended purposes.” This very subjective standard is open to interpretation and has been at the heart of maritime litigation for well over a century. The concept of seaworthiness as a cause of action in personal injury suits dates back to The Osceola, a 1903 Supreme Court case that first recognized that a shipowner has a legal duty to provide a seaworthy vessel for the benefit and safety of its crew. Since then, shipowners, crewmembers, lawyers, and judges have clashed over what is and isn’t considered unseaworthiness.
Classic examples of conditions that can render a vessel unseaworthy as a matter of law are missing rungs or handrails on a ladder or stairway, slippery decks caused by ignored maintenance, and hatches that are not watertight. Less obvious factors include an incompetent master whose lack of navigational skills caused injury or damage to another, or an uncharacteristically violent crewmember who assaults another and whose unstable “propensities” were or should have been known to the shipowner. Some claims of unseaworthiness border on the absurd. For example, the claim of a galley hand on a cruise ship who suffered a hand injury from the sawtooth blade of the aluminum foil dispenser. The sharpness of the blade was claimed to be unreasonably dangerous, thereby constituting an “unseaworthy” appurtenance of the vessel.
Temporary conditions are typically not unseaworthy conditions. But in another famous Supreme Court case, Mitchell v Trawler Racer Inc., the Court ruled that “fish gurry” that had accumulated on the deck railing of a commercial fishing vessel rendered the boat unseaworthy in a suit by a crewmember who slipped on the slippery substance.
It is also important to note that seaworthiness does not equate to perfection. Minor flaws and slight imperfections will not give rise to an unseaworthiness claim. But again, there is no clear definition of the term unseaworthiness within the admiralty law. Therefore, the prudent vessel owner and diligent crewmember must always take care to attend to the ever-changing ship-side conditions that can impact the safety, and ultimately the seaworthiness, of their vessel.