There was a time when an experienced mariner could judge the seaworthiness of a vessel. By merely observing its hull and rigging he could make a determination if it was fit to take him to sea. Over time, vessels have become more complex and sophisticated with integrated mechanical, hydraulic and electrical systems, the seaworthiness of which may be ascertained only by skilled experts.
The vessel owner has a legal duty to provide its crew with a seaworthy vessel, i.e., a vessel that is reasonably fit for its intended purpose. The purpose behind this obligation is to provide the crew with a reasonably safe working environment. A ship can be seaworthy with respect to its hull, yet be unseaworthy with respect to its appliances, her crew and her living and working conditions. The Law of Seaman, 5th Ed., Force & Norris.
The vessel owner is not the guarantor of the safety and well-being of the seaman, nor is the vessel owner required to provide a vessel that is perfect in every respect. The owner is obliged simply to furnish a vessel with such gear aboard that is reasonably proper and suitable for its intended use, and a crew that is reasonably competent and adequate to properly look over the ship. Bankston v. Odgen Marine, (5th Cir. 1988).
That this duty is strictly imposed is reflected in the Supreme Court’s decision in Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., in 1960, where it held that the duty of the ship owner to maintain a seaworthy vessel is non-delegable and exists regardless of the ship owner’s fault. If an unseaworthy condition is present which is a proximate cause of the injury, then the exercise of due diligence or reasonable care does not relieve the ship owner of his obligation. In short, the vessel owner may be liable to the crew member injured due to an unseaworthy condition irrespective of fault on its part. The presence of a transitory condition will make a vessel unseaworthy, just as a permanent defect may. Neither lack of knowledge nor control of the condition is a defense to the ship owner because liability is assigned without regard to fault. The Law of Seamen, 5thEd., Force & Norris. Transitory conditions, such as oil on the deck, accumulation of ice on equipment, grease in the galley, may render a vessel unseaworthy. The ship owner must also provide a competent master and crew adequate in numbers. A crewmember who is not of reasonable disposition (prone to anger or violence), may also render the vessel, if by his intentional acts, he injures a fellow crewmember. The vessel owner must exercise reasonable care in vetting its employees during the hiring process.
Not everyone aboard a vessel is owed the warranty of seaworthiness. The warranty extends only to members of the crew. Passengers, longshoremen or other maritime workers who may board the vessel are not owed the warranty.
There does, however, appear to be a contradiction in the law as it has been developed by the courts. On one hand the courts adhere to the principal that the vessel owner is not obliged to furnish the crew with the best, most modern or most convenient gear or machinery. The standard is not perfection. Yet, on the other hand, liability is strictly imposed on the vessel owner if a seaman is injured due to an unseaworthy condition, even if the vessel owner has exercised reasonable care. This being the case, even the vessel owner who does all that it reasonably can to provide the seaman with a vessel that is in all respects sound and safe can still be held responsible due to equipment failure that it could not have anticipated.