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Legal Definition of Seaworthiness

Legally defined, a seaworthy ship is one that is fit for any normal perils of the sea, including the fitness of the vessel itself as well as any equipment on it and the skills and health of its crew. Note that this only includes the perils of the sea, as opposed to the perils on the sea, and so does not include piracy, severe storms or other such hazards that may occasionally be encountered.

Because this definition is very general and non-specific, a number of other considerations have to be taken into account. The destination, class of ship, place of departure and even the type of cargo are all considerations when determining seaworthiness. Given the number and type of variables involved, seaworthiness is a relative term that is impossible to be measured or determined in the abstract.

The seaworthiness standard is one of reasonable fitness and does not require a ship's owner to have a perfect, immaculate ship. The law does not require a ship to "weather any conceivable storm or withstand every imaginable peril of the sea", the vessel must simply be fit for its particular purpose and offer reasonable safety on the open sea.

It is important to distinguish the difference between a safe ship and a seaworthy ship. The terms "safety of ships" and "ship safety" are often construed to be synonymous with the "seaworthiness" of a ship, however "unsafe" ships are defined in two categories. The first of these categories deals with "seaworthiness" which, strictly speaking, should only concern matters impinging upon the ship's ability to encounter the ordinary perils of the sea. The second category is concerned with conditions onboard the ship that affect the health, safety and welfare of human lives. One could accurately conclude that" safe" and "seaworthy" are different concepts; while "seaworthy" is one part of a "safe" ship, it is not the only consideration.

Commercial maritime contracts tend to note only the seaworthiness of ships and not whether or not that ship is safe.

On the other hand, maritime criminal law uses the term "safety" to describe some of the statutory offenses. For example, let's say that a seagoing vessel lacks sufficient medical supplies to provide for the needs of its crew. A deficiency in medical supplies would probably render the ship" unsafe", but not render it "unseaworthy" as seaworthiness is legally defined. This distinction becomes important when considering the merits of a civil versus a criminal action against a ship's owner or their representative.

Longshore & Harbor Workers Compensation Act (LHWCA)

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