Seaworthiness as it relates to ocean carriage is one of the most important concepts in admiralty law. Since the advent of shipping, cargo owners have been interested in having their goods carried on seaworthy vessels. The same is true today. Although the word “seaworthy” is hallowed by long by long usage, the legal problems associated with the term are intricate and often complicated.

Seaworthiness was originally used in maritime law to describe the condition of the ship’s hull. This meaning has since been broadened.

Seaworthiness is a relative term. Its definition depends upon its application to the type of vessel involved and the nature of the cargo carried on the contemplated voyage. The vessel must be staunch, strong and well-equipped for the intended voyage and manned by a competent crew and skilled master. Moreover, the vessel must be capable of safely receiving the intended cargo and carrying it to destination in an undamaged condition

Unless the vessel is reasonably fit to carry its cargo, it is unseaworthy. However, the seaworthiness concept does not require the vessel to be fault-proof.
Under the general maritime law, the shipowner’s obligation to provide a seaworthy vessel is absolute and non-delegable. It is also independent of the shipowner’s knowledge or intent.

Two Laws Lessen Obligation
The Harter Act and the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act (Cogsa), when applicable to ocean carriage, have lessened the shipowner’s seaworthiness obligation to that of using due diligence to furnish a seaworthy vessel. These statutes relieve the shipowner from liability without fault. Whether due diligence has been exercised after an unseaworthy condition has been found is a question of fact. (What was actually done, and was it all that reasonably could have been done to make the vessel seaworthy?)

The warranty of seaworthiness is implied in private contracts of carriage (charter parties) not incorporating Cogsa, unless expressly excluded. This implied warranty can be avoided only by clear, unequivocal language, plainly and unambiguously negating its existence.

A Case of Rust
Contracts of carriage can also expressly warrant seaworthiness. Such was the case of the “S/S Havtjeld” (1994 U.S. Dist. Lexis 10292), recently decided by the Federal District Court of New York. In the Havtjeld case, cargo interests used a shipowner for cargo damaged in stow by pieces of rust that had fallen from the vessel’s overhead cargo hold and its coamings.

The charter party contract contained an express warranty by the shipowner “to make the vessel in all respects seaworthy.” The vessel owner sought to excape liability from this warranty by contending that another clause in the charter, providing that “the ship’s holds were to be properly swept, cleaned and dried to the charterer’s satisfaction,” placed the responsibility of proving the seaworthiness of the holds on the cargo interests.

The shipowner argued that cargo interests had the option of ordering the holds cleaned or to reject the vessel for rust scale. By accepting the ship, cargo interests could not later complain about the presence of rust scale in the holds. The court rejected the argument and held for the cargo interests, ruling that “the duty to provide a seaworthy ship is a duty the shipowner cannot delegate, and if cargo damage is caused by some defect in the vessel which the captain has failed to discover and correct, primary liability falls on the shipowner.”

The “Havtjeld” case suggests that shipowners cannot delegate their duty to discover and correct unseaworthy conditions. The decision also indicates that hold inspection clauses in charter parties do not negate seaworthiness warranties.

The “Havtjeld” decision is now on appeal.