a cruise ship sailing in the open ocean

Injury on a Ship at Sea

Accidents can happen anywhere, even on ships on the sea. But in these cases, who is liable for your injuries? Keep reading to learn what the law says about injuries on a ship at sea.

Common Accidents on a Ship at Sea

Working at sea can expose you to a wide variety of accidents and injuries. Below are common ones:

Slips, Trips, and Falls: Due to the constant motion of the vessel, slippery surfaces, and confined spaces, slips, trips, and falls are very common.

Musculoskeletal Strains: Heavy lifting, repetitive tasks, and prolonged periods of physical labor contribute to musculoskeletal strains, affecting the back, shoulders, and limbs.

Falls Overboard: Accidents leading to falls overboard are very risky, often associated with working on open decks or during transfer between vessels.

Crush Injuries: Machinery and equipment used on ships can lead to crush injuries, particularly during maintenance, repair, or cargo handling operations.

Burns and Scalds: Engine rooms, kitchens, and machinery create environments where burns and scalds can occur, often from hot surfaces or substances.

Entanglement in Equipment: Workers may face the risk of clothing or body parts getting entangled in moving machinery or equipment, resulting in severe injuries.

Weather-Related Injuries: Adverse weather conditions at sea can contribute to injuries, including those caused by rough seas, high winds, or extreme temperatures.

Occupational Diseases: Prolonged exposure to specific hazards, such as asbestos or other harmful substances, can result in occupational diseases affecting respiratory or overall health.

Collisions and Accidents: Ships may be involved in collisions with other vessels or structures, leading to various injuries for crew members on board.

Criminal Liability in Maritime Accidents

Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute

The Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute, described in Title 18, Section 1115 of the United States Code, provides a distinctive legal lens through which authorities address serious maritime incidents leading to injury or loss of life. It deviates from traditional common law manslaughter by relying on a concept of simpler negligence. 

While common law mandates proving gross negligence or passion, the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute depends on proving negligence through a breach of duty. This legal difference allows authorities to bring criminal charges with a lower proof threshold than common-law manslaughter. 


Legal precedents emphasize the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute’s unique standard, holding that any degree of negligence is sufficient to trigger criminal culpability. This departure from common law standards ensures that even a breach of duty, something less severe than gross negligence, can lead to criminal consequences. This approach aligns with the maritime industry’s emphasis on safety, making it a potent legal tool when lapses in training, safety violations, or negligence contribute to maritime tragedies.

In instances where safety violations, inadequate training, or omissions in emergency preparedness occur, prosecutors can build a case based on negligence. This could include failures to maintain a night watch, insufficient crew training, or deficiencies in conducting fire drills. The cumulative effect of these safety violations represents a breach of duty and can form the basis for criminal charges under the statute.

International Criminal Liability

The scope of criminal liability for negligence in maritime accidents extends beyond national jurisdictions, governed by a network of treaties and customary international law. The main regulation is the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which, in conjunction with customary international law, dictates conduct at sea and liability. 

Civil Liability in Maritime Accidents

Unlike criminal proceedings, civil liability involves the responsibility for damages and compensation.

Preponderance of Evidence Standard

In civil liability, the burden of proof is significantly different from criminal cases. Rather than the rigorous beyond a reasonable doubt criterion, civil cases operate on the principle of the preponderance of evidence. This standard necessitates a demonstration that, more likely than not, the alleged negligence or breach of duty occurred. This framework allows for a more nuanced examination of the circumstances surrounding a maritime incident.


Compensation in civil maritime cases can vary greatly depending on the severity of the negligence, the immediate damages, and the long-term ones. An injury at sea can have long-lasting effects, so many costs can be covered:

Medical Expenses: Naturally, the main cost covered in these cases is the medical bills. This includes immediate and long-term ones, from surgery to ongoing treatment.

Property Damage: You could also get compensation for damages to your property, including vessels, cargo, or other belongings.

Lost Wages: An injury can leave you out of a job for some time. Especially if you work at the ship where the accident occurred, this is why you can get reimbursement for income.

Pain and Suffering: Just as with other types of personal injury, in most cases, you are eligible to get a monetary amount to alleviate the burden of pain and suffering.

Rehabilitation Costs: Expenses related to medical treatments, therapy, and rehabilitation are also covered.

International Maritime Laws

Liability in international waters is a common source of confusion for people. You should read the following points if you had an accident on a ship navigating international waters.

Shipowners are liable for medical care, maintenance, and repatriation expenses until recovery or a permanent disability is determined. Plus, burial expenses are the responsibility of shipowners in case of onboard deaths or deaths of individuals entitled to medical care at the shipowner’s expense.

National laws may limit shipowner liability, including specific periods for medical care and maintenance. Public authorities may assume liability, exempting shipowners under certain circumstances.

Get the Compensation You Deserve

If you have suffered an accident caused by your employer or a third party, you need to prove negligence. Collecting evidence and making this case for yourself can be challenging. But with an experienced lawyer, you can have the best plan to maximize compensation. Consult with a trusted personal injury lawyer to design a plan that works for your specific case.


United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Maritime Crime: A Manual for Criminal Justice Practitioners.

Legal Information Institute. Preponderance of the evidence.

GovInfo. 18 U.S.C. 1115 – Misconduct or neglect of ship officers.

Morris & Dewett provides this information to the public for general education and interest. The firm does not represent clients in every topic discussed in answers to frequent questions. The information is curated and produced based on questions commonly asked or search terms commonly used. Every effort is made to provide accurate information. Do not make any decision solely based on the information provided, please seek relevant counsel for each topic area. Consult an attorney before making any legal decision, consult a doctor before making any medical decision, and consult a financial advisor before making any fiscal decision. Information provided is not legal advice. If you have any legal needs, please do not hesitate to contact us. We are pleased to assist you.

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