(MINEOLA, N.Y.) — A complaint was filed Tuesday in New York state court against Maersk Line Ltd. alleging that the company failed to adequately protect U.S. Merchant Marine Academy midshipmen from sexual assault and sexual harassment while working aboard Maersk ships as part of USMMA’s Sea Year program.
A second suit by another cadet, under the pseudonym “Midshipman Y,” was also due to be filed on Tuesday, but a spokeswoman for the attorney said a “procedural issue” delayed the complaint and it is in the process of being refiled.
The first complaint was filed on behalf of Hope Hicks, a current USMMA student who shook the maritime industry last year when, under the moniker “Midshipman X,” she publicly described how she was raped by her superior officer while serving as an engine cadet aboard a Maersk cargo ship. The second complaint is slated to be filed on behalf of another USMMA student who goes by the moniker Midshipman Y. According to the complaint, Midshipman Y was so severely sexually harassed aboard a Maersk ship during her Sea Year that she slept clutching a knife for protection.
The USMMA Sea Year program requires, as a precondition to graduation, that students work on commercial ships for months at a time to gain practical shipboard experience. Maersk and other commercial shipping companies contract with the federal government and receive subsidies in exchange for, among other things, employing students from USMMA during their Sea Year.
Hicks’ complaint alleges she was the only woman aboard her assigned Maersk vessel during her Sea Year in 2019 and that, while on board, she was raped by one of the ship’s top-ranking officers, a man more than 40 years her senior. According to the complaint, when Hicks confronted the officer, she was told no one would believe her if she made a report. The complaint also says Hicks suffers from severe and ongoing emotional distress as a result of the traumatic events she experienced on the Maersk vessel.
Midshipman Y’s complaint alleges that she experienced extreme sexual harassment, unwanted touching and discrimination while on board the same Maersk vessel two years later. According to the complaint, Midshipman Y was severely sexually harassed by a crewmember who was known to other Maersk officers and crewmembers as being violent. Although crewmembers and officers were allegedly aware of the harassment, no one intervened or reported the misconduct.
The complaint further alleges that Midshipman Y was treated less favorably than male crewmembers on account of her gender. Driven to desperation, at the first opportunity, Midshipman Y begged USMMA representatives to get her off the ship prior to the completion of her required sea time, according to the complaint. As a result of the experience, Midshipman Y had to take an academic setback and is unsure if she will ever be emotionally capable of completing the USMMA.
According to both complaints, Maersk was aware of the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment on its ships. Specifically, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx suspended the Sea Year program in 2016 amid allegations of sexual assaults and harassment of cadets during Sea Year voyages. Once reinstated, regulations required Maersk and other shipping companies participating in the Sea Year program to enact and enforce procedures to protect against sexual assault and harassment of USMMA midshipmen aboard their vessels.
“What happened to Hope and Midshipman Y was both foreseeable and preventable by Maersk,” said Steven J. Kelly, partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp and counsel for plaintiffs. “Maersk acknowledged that it owes a special duty of care to USMMA cadets, yet even after the Sea Year program was reinstated in 2017, Maersk failed to implement and enforce adequate policies and procedures to protect these young women.”
The Hicks complaint alleges that even after the 2016 temporary suspension of the Sea Year program, Maersk was complacent about its sexual assault and harassment prevention duties. According to the complaint, Maersk’s indifference to its duties was evident when one of Hicks’ Maersk supervisors tasked her with logging onto a computer and completing the required sexual assault and harassment training on behalf of a number of other crewmembers. Following the publication of Midshipman X’s story, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg again suspended the Sea Year program in November 2021.
“Speaking up against a powerful corporation is intimidating, which is why, up to this point, Hope has declined to reveal her identity, opting instead to go by the moniker Midshipman X,” said Christine Dunn, partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp and counsel for plaintiffs. “But, today, Hope is publicly identifying herself in an effort to seek justice for the sexual assault and harassment that she, and others – like Midshipman Y, endured aboard Maersk vessels.”
“For years there have been reports of widespread sexual assault and harassment in the maritime industry, yet nothing has changed,” said Ryan Melogy, founder of Maritime Legal Solutions and co-counsel for plaintiffs, who is himself a USMMA graduate. “Now real change may finally be on the way thanks to the bravery of survivors like Hope and Midshipman Y. These courageous young women are standing up, speaking out, and saying “this has got to stop!”
The complaints assert that Maersk’s conduct violates the Jones Act because plaintiffs’ injuries were directly caused by Maersk’s negligence and failure to provide a seaworthy vessel. Hicks’ complaint also alleges a violation of the New York Human Rights Act, while Midshipman Y’s’ complaint alleges violations of the New York Human Rights Act and Title VII. The complaints request a jury trial.
– Sanford Heisler Sharp