Friday, 8 May 2009

‘Maersk Alabama’ Cook sues Owners and Manning Agents after Pirate Attack

The Chief Cook on the ‘Maersk Alabama’ that was hijacked off Somalia has sued Maersk and Waterman Steamship Corp., the company that supplied the crew, for putting him and the other seafarers on the Alabama knowingly in danger. Hicks’ April 27 lawsuit seeks at least $75,000 in damages. Equally interestingly, it seeks ‘improved safety’ for ships against pirates. The two companies involved have declined to comment, saying that the case that is now subjudice.

Richard Hicks, the fifty three year old US Chief Cook, says the owners did not do anything to improve safety measures for vessels sailing along the Somali coast. Quoted in a Palm Beach newspaper, Hicks says, "We've had safety meetings every month for the last three years and made suggestions of what should be done and they have been ignored." He added that he was unsure if he would be returning to sea.

Hicks’ attorney Terry Bryant says that the US unit of AP Møller Maersk knowingly exposed employees of Waterman Steamship to imminent danger and took no steps to provide appropriate security and safety. Instead, by only relying on ‘after the fact rescue operations’, they exposed Mr. Hicks to greater danger than he would otherwise have been exposed to. The attorney also claims that the cook sustained “serious and permanent injuries” when he was “thrown about” in a struggle with a pirate.

In a case that drew international attention, the Alabama was hijacked on April 8 and Capt. Richard Phillips held hostage before U.S. Navy SEAL snipers on the USS Bainbridge shot three Somali pirates and freed the Master after five days in captivity.

The lawsuit wants the two companies to improve safety for ships by using barbed wire, armed guards, and armed crew and by routing ships away from Somali waters. In separate developments, Maersk has said, during its inquiry into the hijack that it would not allow armed crews, saying, “Weapons onboard could lead to a dangerous escalation and raise a number of multi jurisdictional legal issues.”

The legal basis for the lawsuit has been explained by Jones Act attorney Steve Gordon writing for gcaptain, who explains that under the Jones Act, a maritime employer owes an employee a safe workplace and an a ship that is not unseaworthy. Unseaworthiness, explains Mr. Gordon, includes a ship that is “not fit for intended purpose”, so the question becomes, was the Maersk Alabama unseaworthy because she was asked to transit pirate infested waters?

Observers say that Ship owners and managers are understandably alarmed at the possible economic repercussions if a precedent is set by Hicks’ lawsuit. With hundreds of sailors held hostage in Somalia, and with thousands hit annually in piracy attacks, the cost of potential lawsuits could run into millions. Coupled with the present economic climate and piracy insurance premia that are rising and widening to cover larger areas of the Indian Ocean, the fallout could well be catastrophic. Thousands of ships carry a huge chunk of global oil and other cargoes through the affected region annually.

Meanwhile, Terry Bryant blames the owners for not doing enough. Speaking the Palm Beach Post, he says that the owners "send these ships into very dangerous waters and leave them defenceless.”They're basically giving them squirt guns on steroids, against AK 47s."


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