Crew member's claims for unpaid wages remind me of the Dr. Seuss line about how business has got to grow, "regardless of crummies in tummies, you know!" Somehow those rhymes neatly capture how clinically businesses can operate all the while sailing past their legal obligations.
Back in 1898, the Supreme Court stated as long "as a plank of the ship remains, the sailor is entitled, against all other persons, to the proceeds as a security for his wages." More recently, a federal statute affords a crew member a preferred maritime lien for wages and there's a separate federal statute allowing crew to collect a penalty in certain circumstances when wages aren't paid. Even a wage lien arising after the recording of a preferred ship's mortgage typically wins priority. The bottom line is feel comfortable telling your colleagues and crewmates that a crew member's wage lien is accorded sacred status in the maritime law.
Federal courts have jurisdiction to resolve crew member's wage claims. In broad speak, the word crew member includes a wide range of workers whose work on a vessel on navigable waters contributes to its functioning, its mission or its operation. (They're plenty of legal battles waged over who is and who isn't a crew member such that you should always speak to your admiralty attorney to understand yours or someone else's status.)
A crew member has both an in personam claim as well as an in rem claim for unpaid wages. That is, a crew member can typically sue the vessel (in rem), its owner (in personam) or both entities. That the vessel can be sued and be held responsible and ultimately sold to satisfy the wage lien is a unique aspect of maritime law.
For the commercial vessel owner, it's important to remember the crew you hired are rendering services which likely give rise to a maritime lien. That maritime lien simply springs into existence and crew members don't have to file anything in order to lien your vessel. For the crew member, the takeaway is that while you may have a preferred maritime lien for wages, it's not infallible. For instance, allowing time to pass without promptly seeking to act on your claim can prejudice your rights. Contractual terms whereby you've given up your right to lien the vessel may also prove enforceable so as to extinguish your maritime lien.
This article is provided for your general information, is not legal opinion and should not be relied upon. Always seek legal counsel to understand your rights and remedies.