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Non-US Citizen Crew May Be Unable to Sue for Injury If Bill Becomes Law

On October 28, 2011, Lloyd's List reports that a draft provision in upcoming US legislation would bar non-US citizen crew on foreign-flag passenger vessels from seeking damages for injury or death in US courts. Of course, this legislation has sparked outrage among seafarer rights advocates, while others note that the provision — whose main effect will be on cruise line employees — sets a different standard for this category of mariners as compared with crewmembers on cargoships or containerships, or any other merchant vessel.

The House of Representatives’ version of the new US Coast Guard Authorization Act contains a section that stipulates that a seafarer who is not a US national or permanent resident, and who suffers injury or death outside US territorial waters, be barred from bringing a damages lawsuit before a US court, so long as the mariner has a right to seek compensation under the laws of his homeland or in the ship’s flag state. The Bill, introduced by Republican Congressman Frank LoBiondo in September, has been voted out of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. It is now before the Republican-controlled House for a full vote. This may take place before Christmas.

The Senate version of the USCG Authorization Act does not contain this provision. Experts have reportedly said the Democratic-controlled Senate is not expected to vote on its own Bill until next year, and questioned whether such a provision would find favor with the Democratic majority.

The House provision would benefit top cruise lines, which are based in the US and carry a predominantly American base of passengers, but whose ships are foreign-flagged and employ mainly foreign crew. It is well known that foreign injured crew invariably bring their lawsuits in the US, rather than take their chances back home, as legally awarded damages in many foreign jurisdictions are derisory or non-existent. Some of this has been remedied by foreign jurisdictions putting in place employment tribunals that hear cases and award compensation, but there are many jurisdictions that do not have such infrastructure. The best example of countries to which such infrastructure is non-existent is China, Myanmar or Russia. If the legislation were to become law, many suggest that these poor seafarers would have to travel to a flag state like Liberia, and file their claim for an injury.

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