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Why Crew Need to Remain Wards of the Admiralty Court

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, crewmembers are and must remain wards of the admiralty Court. I've read a few things lately urging a change of course on this point and that's flat-out boardroom talk, in my opinion. Oh, the platitudes begin, but sailors these days are in such a different spot than years before what with protections afforded by modern technology, strong unions and well-run ships. Really? Not so and the maritime Courts don't seem to think so either.

For instance, just a few years ago the Eleventh Circuit (which is always knee-deep in admiralty issues) explained that commercial seamen are treated as wards of the Court because they are vulnerable to exploitation by their employers at sea. And whilst union contracts may guarantee benefits from overtime pay to amenities such as washers and dryers this has not, in the Third Circuit's eyes, diminished the Court's treatment of crewmember as its wards. The point is, don't let the issue be framed as being a situation where the tide is turning against this well established admiralty doctrine - it's not.

And that's a good thing. Earning a living at sea is a very different way of life and one which, in my opinion, can create employee vulnerabilities. Far away ports, restricted living, dangerous working environments and a life of constant shuttling are just some of the variables which may allow a ship owner to take advantage of a crew member and which strongly favor the admiralty court's continued scrutiny of matters involving seamen.

Don't fall out of your captain's chair or stumble out of the boardroom in a froth, despite a long line of Court cases treating seamen as wards needing special protections, the scope of these protections is not unlimited. In my experience, where there's no overreaching, the Court is not going to unduly favor a crewmember to the prejudice of a ship owner.

The way I see is that by tucking a crewmember under its judicial wing, the admiralty Court is simply making certain that the seas are even and the fight is fair.

Underway and making way.

By John Fulweiler


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