Sinking or capsizing are two of the worst case scenarios for anyone working in the maritime industry. If you work on any kind of ship in any waters you take risks every day. There are all kinds of hazards in this industry, but when a ship sinks or capsizes, the results can be devastating. These kinds of events lead to injuries, illness, and in the worst situations drownings and fatal hypothermia.
As a maritime worker you should know that your employer has the responsibility for taking all necessary precautions needed to prevent sinking or capsizing. This means keeping ships well-maintained and seaworthy as well as ensuring workers are adequately trained among other things. If you have been injured in a sinking event or you lost a loved one to a ship sinking you have rights to compensation, especially if an employer or other worker can be found to be negligent in causing the incident.
Why Ships Sink
News stories about devastating accidents at sea prove that ships, even very large ones, can capsize and sink in the right conditions. It can be hard to believe that such well-engineered and massive vessels can fail so spectacularly, but they do and there are many reasons why this might happen. Unfortunately, in many cases the underlying cause is negligence. Many ship sinkings, and the resulting fatalities, could have been prevented.
- Weather. Bad weather is a major cause of capsized and sunken ships. Modern ships are much better at coping with storms and rough waters than ships of the past, but they are still vulnerable. The few cases in which a sinking is a complete accident, weather is often to blame. Even when bad weather is the cause, a capsizing can be sometimes be prevented. Storm tracking and navigation should allow captains to change course to avoid hazardous situations. Even so, some ships get caught in rough waters and high winds and lose control.
- Collisions and running aground. Collisions with other ships, docks, bridges, rocks and reefs, and with the ground in shallow waters represent another common cause of a ship capsizing and sinking. Navigation and piloting should be able to avoid these errors, but sometimes accidents happen, especially in crowded harbors. A collision can rip a hole in the hull of a ship and cause it to sink quickly.
- Human error. A captain guiding a ship has a heavy responsibility and any error he or she makes could cause the ship to sink. A captain sometimes has to make quick decisions, and when those decisions prove to be wrong, the result can be disastrous.
- Flooding. When a ship takes on water, it becomes less buoyant and it may start to take on more water as a result. The effect is a chain of events that often leads to a sunken or capsized ship. Flooding may occur because of bad weather, but also because of a leak in the ship or from a collision with an object.
- Shifting cargo. When cargo isn’t stored correctly it may shift around below decks on a ship. This shifting can cause all kinds of safety problems, including falling objects that injure workers. In some rarer instances, shifting cargo can upset the balance of a ship and cause it to roll. When this effect is extreme it may even cause the ship to take on water, capsize, and sink.
Ship Sinking and Negligence
It is possible that these causes of a sinking ship can be purely accidental. Bad weather, poor visibility, or a judgment call that seemed prudent at the time can all lead to sinking. On the other hand, many of these accidents can be avoided with precautions. For instance, human error can be nearly eliminated with proper training of workers. Collisions can be avoided in most situations when navigation is done correctly. Shifting cargo should not be a problem if it is stored and secured correctly. Flooding caused by leaks can also be avoided when ships are maintained and repaired regularly.
Examples of Sunken or Capsized Ships
Sunken ships make the news because they are usually big disasters, especially when the ship is carrying passengers, like ferries or cruise ships. A ship may sink for any number of reasons, but when people lose their lives, those reasons become even more important. For example when the large ferry that sank in South Korea capsized in 2014, it was carrying nearly 500 passengers, mostly young students. The cause of the capsizing was a sudden turn that led to a shift in the cargo, which in turn caused the boat to list and capsize. The disaster could have been prevented if the cargo had been secured correctly and if it had not been dangerously overloaded.
In 2015 a cruise ship on the Yangtze River in China sank with more than 450 passengers aboard. The sinking happened quickly and is thought to have been caused by weather, a true accident. A tornado hit the cruise ship suddenly and unexpectedly. Tragically, only a handful of passengers were rescued and the rest lost their lives drowning in the river. While investigations continued after the incident to find out what could have been differently, it seemed weather was the real culprit.
Another cruise ship incident involved the Greek ship MTS Oceanos, which sank in 1991. The luxury cruise ship was chartered out of South Africa and sank off that country’s coast when a storm triggered leaks in the hull and engine room. The leaking was eventually enough to sink the ship. The cruise ship had been inadequately maintained and repaired after its previous charter voyage. Heading into its fateful last voyage it was in disrepair. It had hull plates that were loose, stripped check valves, and a bulkhead hole between the sewage tank and generator room. Negligence was also found in the actions of the captain and crew as the ship sank. They abandoned ship without sending out an alarm. Passengers and entertainers were left to find a way to signal for help.
It isn’t just ferries and cruise ships that are capable of capsizing or sinking during voyages. In late 2015, a large container ship, El Faro, sank in waters east of the Bahamas. The sinking occurred during Hurricane Joaquin. It is thought that the ship was trying to outrun the storm, but what really happened is unknown. Searches for the sunken ship and any survivors were halted. Searchers were also looking for the ship’s black box to try to determine what happened to the ship and its crew. All that was known was that the captain reported that the ship lost power and was taking on water. This clearly led to its sinking, but what caused the power outage remains a mystery, as does any negligence that may have been involved.
Rights for Workers and Their Survivors
A ship sinking or capsizing is a terrible event and if you have lived through one you may not have come out of it unscarred. You may have experienced physical injuries and you may be living with psychological consequences from the trauma. Either way, these injuries are likely to impact you over the long term, and may even prevent you from going back to work. As a maritime worker you have rights under federal laws that should provide you with compensation for your medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.
If you lost a loved one who was working aboard a sunken ship, you also have rights. Survivor benefits go to dependent family members to cover the cost of lost wages, for pain and suffering, and to pay for funeral expenses. For anyone who was injured or lost a loved one in one of these maritime disasters, a professional and experienced maritime lawyer can act as a guide and representative in getting compensation, even when it has been denied by an employer or ship owner.