We’ve all seen it on the news—images and videos of giant containership covered in dense black spoke. These incidents are classic examples of shipboard fires and explosions. Container ships carrying thousands of boxes with millions of dollars of cargo can catch fire, ignite combustible materials in other containers, and burn for days. Sometimes this scenario ends with the sinking or constructive total loss of the ship. On average, there is a fire aboard a containership somewhere in the world every two weeks. Major container fires occur as often as every two months.
However, box ships are not the only vessels with a history of fires and explosions. Petroleum tank barges, chemical tank ships, supply ships, and LNG carriers can all be at risk of shipboard fire and massive explosions. This is especially true when vessels are carrying volatile materials like corrosive chemicals and fertilizer.
Just about any ship can be threatened by fire in areas such as the galley, cargo storage, fuel tanks, crew quarters, passenger spaces, and engine room. This includes commercial fishing vessels, tugboats, ferries, tour boats, cruise ships, and recreational boats.
While damage from fires and explosions can reduce a vessel to ash, the loss of goods is overshadowed by the cost in human life and limb. Far too often, vessel fires and explosions result in the loss of life or life-altering injuries to crewmembers. Mariners such as masters, mates, deckhands, able seamen, ordinary seamen, engineers, stewards, and tankermen can all be impacted. Other common injuries suffered as a result of fires and explosions on boats include:
Lung damage from smoke inhalation
Most ship fires and explosions are the result of negligence. Common factors include improper stowage of cargo and equipment, malfunctioning machinery, poor ventilation, sparking electrical wires, failed heaters, and inadequate training.
The availability and maintenance of safety equipment is crucial to prevent fire and explosion injuries. Critical safety equipment includes:
Proper fire extinguishers (regularly serviced)
Smoke alarms (regularly tested and replaced as needed)
Fireproof hatches and doors
Automatic fire suppression systems
Good practices in keeping spaces with fire suppression systems adequately sealed
Preventative maintenance and immediate repair of vessel safety equipment can stop fires before they grow out of control and hurt someone.
While fires and explosions can occur on passenger vessels, the majority of injuries are suffered by crewmembers on commercial ships. Working in the maritime industry can be risky but it should never lead to fires and explosions.
Maritime law applies to the benefit of merchant seamen under the Jones Act and general maritime law, also known as admiralty law. Maritime law is special. It is intended to be uniform among U.S. jurisdictions and the law itself is often older than the country we live in.
The Jones Act is relatively young in terms of maritime law—it’s only a century old. Under the Jones Act, maritime employees, known as seamen, are entitled to a safe place to work. If they are injured due to the negligence of their employer, the seaman can sue for money damages like lost past and future earning, pain and suffering, and permanent disability.
The same types of damages may be available to mariners under the ancient doctrine of unseaworthiness. This common law remedy allows injured seafarers to sue vessel owners for shipboard conditions that are not fit for their intended purpose. Jones Act Negligence and unseaworthiness both require negligence by a defendant in order to recover.
Other remedies available under maritime law don’t even require an employer to be at fault. These are maintenance, cure, and unearned wages. Maintenance and cure are usually administered together. They are living expenses and medical bills paid for the injured seaman until he or she reaches maximum medical cure. The hurt mariner may also be entitled to unearned wages—the wages that would have been earned if the mariner could have completed the contract but for the accident.
If that was confusing to read, don’t worry. An experienced maritime attorney can help you work through your options.
Explosions and vessel fires are among the most serious incidents that occur on the water. If you or a loved one was involved in a marine casualty, you may be rightfully confused and concerned about the future. Maritime law may apply to your advantage and compensation or other benefits may be available. Mariner Law, PLLC understands the law, the industry, and vessel catastrophes. Call today for a free consultation about your options with a Jones Act lawyer: (253) 600-2531. The firm proudly serves mariner clients in Washington, Oregon, New York, Connecticut, Alaska, and nationwide.