Although they are meant to save lives, lifeboats are a major cause of injuries and deaths for maritime workers. Research has shown that the risk of death in accidents involving lifeboats is similar to that of death when entering confined spaces and falling overboard, making lifeboats one of the most dangerous pieces of equipment aboard ship.

Equipment Misuse Is a Major Factor in Lifeboat Injuries

In the hundreds of years that crew and passengers have relied on lifeboats to survive maritime disasters, there have been relatively few changes to boat design and the equipment Lifeboats Are a Major Cause of Injury for Many Seamen used to deploy them. As a result, lifeboat injuries are most likely to occur during launch and retrieval, with risks rarely occurring after the boat is on the water,

Lifeboat accidents are most likely to involve problems with:

  • Hook release. The sudden release of a lifeboat is the most common cause of fatal lifeboat injuries, including head and back trauma and drowning after falling overboard. Failure to reset the hook from a previous launch may cause one hook to release prematurely, spilling passengers overboard or releasing the boat headfirst or upside-down into the water.
  • Tricing and bowsing. The tricing pendant holds the lifeboats during lowering, while the bowsing tackle ensures that the lifeboat is lowered plumb into the water. Overloading a tricing pennant can cause the boat to fall or swing uncontrollably, while faulty bowsing can make it impossible to launch the boat at all.
  • Falls and gripes. Ropes that hold the lifeboat in the stored position (gripes) and the wires that lift or lower the lifeboat (falls) are at risk of becoming frayed or corroded. Sudden failure of these cables can cause free-falling of the lifeboat from the embarkation deck level, causing anything from broken bones to back injuries resulting in paralysis.
  • Engine and starting. Injuries involving lifeboat engines are relatively minor, but are unfortunately common. Crew members that are not properly trained on the boat’s equipment may suffer hand and wrist fractures while starting engines and securing doors.

Who Is Responsible When Lifeboat Accidents Occur?

When passengers or crew members are injured in lifeboat accidents, the employer or shipowner can be held liable for the costs of any injuries. Crew members covered by the Jones Act or other maritime laws have a right to claim workers’ compensation from their employers, and may also be able to file claims of negligence and unseaworthiness for additional injury payment.

The party responsible for a lifeboat injury will often depend on the cause of the accident. For example, crew members may be owed compensation due to:

  • Improper safety drills. Lifeboat drills are a double-edged sword for crew members: regular drills are required to ensure that the crew can launch the boat safely in an emergency, but the drills themselves are often the cause of injury. Regulations require that lifeboat drills be done within 24 hours of the vessel leaving port, but many are done before departure. As drills pose a large safety risk to crew and passengers, vessels often do not load lifeboats during drills to limit training injuries. This makes drills far less realistic, leaving many of the correct techniques ignored or forgotten in a real emergency.
  • Faulty design. Design flaws in the lifeboat or launch equipment have contributed to many accidents at sea. The procedure for lifeboat operation is notoriously complicated, especially if manufacturers’ manuals are difficult to understand.
  • Lack of proper maintenance. Shipowners may cut costs by allowing worn or outdated equipment to remain in use. Failing to perform maintenance or skipping safety inspections may seem like a minor oversight, but these actions place seamen’s lives at risk.

It is vital that injured crew members contact an experienced attorney to determine the cause of the accident, as well as who may be liable for their medical bills, disability costs, and pain and suffering. Fill out our quick online contact form or call our office directly at 212.465.8840 to speak with a maritime injury lawyer at Hofmann & Schweitzer as soon as possible.


Paul T. Hofmann
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Focused on personal injury, with an emphasis on maritime, railroad and construction worker tort claims.