A ship or vessel is considered seaworthy when it is capable of making a sea voyage with probable safety. The ship and its cargo should be well insured, properly manned, and provided with all necessary resources required for a voyage.
Unseaworthiness refers to situations where unsafe conditions that can result in injury to the ship or its cargo exist on a ship or vessel. Unsafe situations result when a ship and its parts and equipments are unfit for their desired purpose. Also, when there is no adequate and competent crew to work on a ship, it can be considered unseaworthy. However, if there was a sufficient crew once, their temporary absence will not result in unseaworthiness. When a ship is overloaded it can be rendered unseaworthy. Under the admiralty law, a ship owner has a duty to provide and maintain a seaworthy ship.[i] This duty cannot be delegated. Unseaworthiness is a situation that can be usually corrected or avoided. It can be the result of improper design, construction, inspection and maintenance of a ship.
Litigation regarding warranty of seaworthiness comes under admiralty jurisdiction of district courts. Even if a shipment is out of a non-maritime contract, admiralty jurisdiction will prevail for loss caused due to unworthiness of the ship.[ii]
An injured seaman has a right to recover for unseaworthiness in addition to maintenance and cure for the injury incurred during the course of employment.[iii] In addition to that, a seaman does not lose the right to recover for unseaworthiness even if s/he is guilty of contributory negligence. However, any contributory negligence on the part of the injured seaman can reduce the amount of the award.
In Hopkins v. Jordan Marine, Inc., 271 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. Me. 2001), the plaintiff, who was a seaman in the defendant ship, was injured at sea and he sued the defendant ship owner. One of the charges was that the ship was unseaworthy making defendant liable for negligence. The defendant contended that the plaintiff behaved negligently and that the injury resulted from his careless behavior. The court observed that the seaman’s carelessness did not excuse the defendant for any injuries caused by an unseaworthy condition in the vessel. The court held that the defendant’s negligence no matter how small is enough to make him liable. It was further held that because the plaintiff’s own negligence played a part in causing the injury, the liability of the defendant is reduced by the percentage or proportion by which the plaintiff contributed to his own injuries.
[i] The James E. Ferris, 1 F. Supp. 1018 (D.N.Y. 1932)
[ii] Fednav, Ltd. v. Isoramar, S.A., 925 F.2d 599 (2d Cir. N.Y. 1991)
[iii] Miller v. International Diving & Consulting Servs., 669 So. 2d 1246 (La.App. 5 Cir. Feb. 14, 1996)