In April 2009, pirates off the coast of Somalia boarded the containership Maersk Alabama. At
the time, the world’s attention was riveted on the fate of the 20 merchant mariners on board.
The tense standoff lasted for days and ended with the intervention of the Navy destroyer
Bainbridge. In its aftermath, the incident opened up a firestorm of debate about the arming of
civilian mariners aboard merchant ships. It also influenced the expansion of small arms
training throughout the maritime industry.
Three years later, the Maersk Alabama is again center stage in the maritime law community,
this time as a result of lawsuits filed by crewmembers against Maersk Line Ltd. and Waterman
Steamship. Maersk is the owner of the vessel and Waterman operated and crewed it under a
charter. Published reports in The Virginian-Pilot and elsewhere say that the lawsuits claim
that crewmembers were placed in danger as a result of sailing so close to the Somali coast.
The Maersk Alabama was about 250 miles off Somalia at the time of the boarding. The suits
assert that ships were warned not to come within 600 miles because of pirate activity.
The lawsuits were filed by 11 crewmembers and claim damages that include bodily injury,
negligence, failing to provide safe working conditions, medical expenses, and lost wages.
Collectively, the crewmembers seek $50 million in damages. In defending the lawsuits, Maersk
denies fault, liability, or negligence, arguing that it was the actions of the pirates, not
Maersk, that caused any injuries or damages.
The Maersk Alabama lawsuits raise interesting questions of maritime law. One such issue is the
liability of vessel owners and operators in setting routes for their vessels. The cases could
also test the limits to which vessel security plans protect ship operators in piracy
Furthermore, the cases may test the theory of assumption of risk, as it applies to commercial
mariners. Assumption of risk is an old legal concept that effectively says mariners know what
they’re getting into when they sign up on a ship that will be sailing on the high seas.
Maersk Alabama Legal Issues
by Tim Akpinar