Crewmembers are wards of the admiralty court. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
For instance, just a few years ago the 11th Circuit (which is always knee-deep in admiralty issues) said that commercial seamen are treated as wards of the court because they are vulnerable to exploitation by their employers at sea. And while 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 need for the court to treat crew members as its wards. The point is, don't let the issue be framed as the tide turning against a 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 can create employee vulnerabilities. Far away ports, restricted living, dangerous working environments and a life of constant shuttling are just some of the variables that may allow a ship owner to take advantage of a crewmember. These conditions strongly favor the admiralty court's continued scrutiny of matters involving seamen.
The way I see it, 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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