The effect of the current global health crisis on seamen and seafarers has been devastating and often underreported. Not only are many prevented from leaving their ships, those that are able to leave are having difficulty with repatriation to their home countries due to travel restrictions or expired visas. There have been reports of abuse and coercion, forcing many to extend contracts. Under international maritime law, an undermanned ship cannot sail.
In June, the United Nations labeled the situation a growing humanitarian and safety crisis. In August, an estimated 300,000 of the 1.2 million crew members at sea were still stranded on ships and working past the expiration of their contracts. The effect of the isolation, stress, illness and fatigue may have contributed to maritime accidents. Many have fallen ill while trapped onboard.
Liability for illness while at sea
The obligations that vessel owners owe to seamen can make them liable when employees become ill while performing their duties at sea. There are three remedies for crewmen who fall ill while at sea.
The first one, maintenance and cure, allows a seaman who falls ill while onboard to receive necessary medical expenses as well as continued food and lodging until he reaches maximum medical recovery. The employer must also pay wages until the end of the voyage for a seaman who must end his term early due to illness.
Vessel owners also have an obligation to provide a vessel that is reasonably fit for its intended use. When a vessel is in a condition of unseaworthiness, it is because it has incompetent crewmen or seamen who are unfit for duty due to illness, not because of an unsafe work environment. The employer must ensure that the ill seaman is quarantined in order to prevent a punitive claim, and also owes a duty to maintain the cleanliness of the ship once the ill crewman is evacuated.
Finally, under the Jones Act, the employer has a duty to provide a reasonably safe work environment. If the employer’s actions or omissions aggravate an injury or illness, he may also be held liable. This may include putting in place restrictions on social interaction, providing adequate medical care to the crew, and remediation once the sick crewman is evacuated.
Maritime workers should know that they have the right to pursue claims if they have been injured or fallen ill due to the negligence of the employer. It is important to consult an experience maritime attorney in New York to find out how the law applies to your situation.