Maritime Physical and Sexual Assault

Most seamen accept a certain amount of risk when they take jobs on ships, but they expect employers to fulfill their obligation to provide a safe place to work. Similarly, cruise ship passengers plan their vacations to have a good time while they’re at sea. However, too many seamen and cruise ship passengers become victims of physical or sexual assaults at the hands of aggressive crew members or other passengers. These types of incidents occur frequently but often go unreported because victims don’t know of their legal rights In addition, prosecuting the attacker is difficult because ships on the high seas are outside U.S. jurisdiction. Nevertheless, general maritime law and the Jones Act protect seamen and other individuals who are victims of physical or sexual aggression aboard a ship.

physical assault

Aggression on the Waters: Assaults and Rapes on Ships

On February 14, 2014, a 31-year-old woman who was taking a cruise on Holland America’s MS Nieuw Amsterdam was attacked by a room service attendant on the high seas. 28-year-old Ketut Pajuyasa, a citizen of Indonesia, beat, choked, and sexually assaulted the victim because he felt slighted by something the passenger allegedly said to him hours earlier.

According to Pajuyasa’s statement to investigators, he delivered breakfast to the victim’s cabin in the morning. He knocked three times on the cabin door, after which he heard the woman say “Wait a minute, son of a bitch!” The passenger opened the door a short time later and Pujayasa left the meal in the cabin, then left.

Instead of reporting the incident to his supervisor or other crew members, Pujayasa kept it to himself and decided to confront the woman. He went back to her cabin, knocked on the door, but left when no one replied. Intent on avenging the perceived slight, Pujayasa sought the victim on the Nieuw Amsterdam’s decks to strike her in the face, but then realized that there would be witnesses.

Using his master key, he entered the victim’s cabin and proceeded to strike and sexually attack her. He hit the woman with various objects, including a curling iron and a portable computer, but she resisted. Eventually, Pujayasa and the passenger ended up on the cabin’s balcony, where the room service attendant attempted to push his victim overboard. Though she was severely injured, the woman was able to stab Pujayasa with a corkscrew and left her cabin. The woman was taken to a hospital in Florida the next day. Pujayasa was arrested and charged with attempted murder and sexual assault.

According to a 2007 statement to Congress by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Deputy Assistant Director Salvador Hernandez, between 2002 and 2007, the agency investigated an average of 50 criminal cases on the high seas per year. Of a total of 258 cases, 184 of them occurred aboard cruise ships. The other 29% took place on private vessels, working ships, or offshore facilities such as oil platforms. Of the 184 crimes reported aboard cruise ships, 46% of the them involved members of a ship’s crew.

Seamen are often victimized by fellow crew members, and not just when sailors drink too much and get rowdy. Far too often, vessel crews include aggressive or mentally unstable individuals who can’t manage anger. Other attackers are bullies who prey upon those seamen they perceive to be weak. Regardless of what issues these aggressors may have, they not only make it difficult for other crewmembers to work in a reasonably safe environment, but they can inflict serious physical and psychological damage to their victims.

Common Violent Incidents and Related Injuries

The most common types of incidents involving assaults on ship’s crews and/or passengers include:

  • Fights on working vessels, such as seiners, shrimp trawlers, and crab boats
  • Stabbings, shootings, and use of other weapons
  • Fights caused by intoxicated crewmembers or passengers
  • Fights caused by mentally unstable crewmembers or passengers who don’t take prescribed anti-psychotic medicines
  • Sexual assaults

The consequences of physical and sexual assaults can be devastating. Even in situations where no weapons are used by the attacker, victims can be severely injured, left disfigured, or killed. If a seaman or passenger is a victim of an aggressive act by someone else aboard a ship, the injuries may be physically and psychologically disabling. The pain, scars, and emotional stresses caused by the attacker may prevent the victim from returning to work, thus making it difficult to earn a living and pay the medical bills for necessary treatment.

Though physical and sexual assaults can cause a wide array of physical injuries, the more common consequences include:

  • Head or brain injuries
  • Back injuries
  • Neck injuries
  • Broken or sprained limbs
  • Eye injuries
  • Cuts, abrasions, or lacerations
  • Penetrating wounds caused by knives or other sharp weapons
  • Mental anguish
  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Severe anxiety and/or depression

Compensation for Assaults at Sea

In the maritime business, an employer has the responsibility of ensuring that a workplace is as safe as possible. This doesn’t mean the total elimination of hazards from the maritime environment, since such a task is impossible. It does, however, mean that an employer has to make sure that foreseeable events, such as physical assaults, are prevented. This means that employers must screen hires for mental health issues, histories of prior violent acts against others, or for signs of aggressive or threatening behavior.

If an employer knowingly hires a maritime worker with a record of violent acts against others or of making threats to co-workers and other individuals, the employer is liable for any injury caused by the attacker. In general maritime law and Jones Act cases involving assaults or rapes, the employer failed to ensure a safe workplace at sea by hiring someone who was likely to attack co-workers or other persons aboard a ship.