By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor of Risk & Insurance®
The changing tactics of high-seas pirates, who are taking hostages and demanding ransom, have prompted an organization dedicated to the safety and well-being of mariners to push for higher standards of care for physically or mentally injured sailors.
Doug Stevenson, the executive director of the Center for Seafarers' Rights at the New York-based Seamen's Church Institute, told Risk & Insurance® that his group is in the process of building a clinical study to measure the psychological impacts of piracy on merchant sailors.
The plight of merchant mariners, he said, has been largely missing from the debate over piracy, million-dollar ransoms, soaring insurance premiums and internationally coordinated military action against pirates.
As the theater of global piracy has shifted in the past decade from the Strait of Malacca in Southeast Asia, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, to the Gulf of Aden off the coast of East Africa, so have the methods that pirates use, according to Stevenson.
African pirates tend to seize ships or take their crew hostage, Stevenson said, compared with the Asiatic pirates, whose methods tend toward boarding a ship, snatching whatever valuables they can and making good their getaway.
That means merchant crews who ply the seas off Somalia and who fall victim to piracy are left with the trauma of worrying not only about the cargo they were hired to protect and deliver, but about their own well-being.
Kevin Speers, a spokesman for Norfolk, Va.-based Maersk Line Ltd., which suffered one of the most well-publicized Somalian piracy incidents in April, said the company supports the institute's efforts and is cooperating with it.
"We are supportive. We recognize that this is an area of well-being and health of our crew members that is important, and it is new and it needs to be addressed," Speers said. "We need to work with organizations like Seamen's Church Institute and our partners in the unions to come up with solutions that take care of our mariners."
THE MAERSK LIABILITY
The liability that ship owners have in how they treated or managed their crews in the event of a ship seizure or hostage situation will be getting a legal vetting in state court in Harris County, Texas, in the near future.
Crew members of the MV Maersk Alabama, which was boarded by Somalian pirates on April 4, 2009, have filed a lawsuit alleging that the Waterman Steamship Corp., the company that leased the vessel, and the Maersk Line Ltd., which owned it, failed to protect them.
Merchant mariners are protected under the U.S. Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 and the Jones Act of 1920, which provide seamen a way to challenge their employers on the grounds of alleged negligence.
Recent media coverage of the Maersk Alabama seizure focused on reports that Richard Phillips, the captain of the Alabama, had received e-mails warning him to stay at least 600 miles off the coast of Somalia, a haven for piracy. When the Maersk Alabama was boarded, it was steaming 380 miles off the coast, according to published reports.
Bruce Paulsen, an attorney who specializes in marine law, said the fact that Phillips had received e-mailed warnings, in addition to the fact that Somali pirates are willing to travel longer distances in pursuit of ransoms, will in all likelihood be factors in the adjudication of lawsuits filed by crewmembers against their employers.
"I suspect it might be a bad fact if I were litigating that," said Paulsen, a partner in the firm of Seward & Kissel in New York, of the warning e-mails that Phillips received.
"But I don't know that there was any warranty that he made. He's the captain of the ship. He has got a certain amount of discretion," Paulsen said.
Paulsen and his partner Larry Rutkowski were the legal advisors for Stamford, Conn.-based Industrial Shipping Enterprises, the owners of the MV Biscaglia, a tanker seized by Somali pirates in November of 2008.
Stevenson, an attorney and ship captain, said he too felt Phillips had some professional leeway in his decision-making, and that the e-mailed warnings from maritime security agencies such as SecureWest and the U.K. Maritime Trade Organization were advisory in nature and not binding on the performance of his duties.
"I have also been the captain of a ship myself, and I know that you have to make a lot of tough decisions," Stevenson said.
Speers declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Stevenson said his group is working with Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and the New York Psychoanalytic Society to ensure that the study meets the highest clinical standards. The details of the study are being held confidential until its release.
"What we're trying to do is to be helpful to insurers, to ship owners and to care providers to provide guidelines for dealing with seafarers who are affected by piracy," Stevenson said.
Stevenson estimated that, over the past decade or so, more than 3,000 sailors have been captured by pirates and held hostage at some point in Southeast Asia and off the coast of Africa.
(For more details on how Maersk Line handled the Alabama event, read our past story on the topic here.)
December 14, 2009
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