Maersk Settles High-Profile “Midshipman X” Sexual Assault Case

settlement in sexual assault case
Hope Hicks agreed to a settlement with Maersk in her litigation for sexual assault (Sanford Heisler Sharp)

Published Nov 18, 2022 12:03 PM by The Maritime Executive

Maersk’s U.S. subsidiary Maersk Line Limited and one of two cadets that sued the company after reporting they had been sexually assaulted at sea settled a high-profile lawsuit. The case, which was originally known simply as "Midshipman X," renewed broader attention to the charges of sexual assault at sea and the working environment for cadets and seafarers.

In a brief statement jointly issued by the plaintiff and Maersk, they said that they had “resolved” the litigation filed by the former midshipman, Hope Hicks, who had previously identified herself as “Midshipman X.” Attorneys for Ms. Hicks and MLL the statement said have mutually agreed that neither side will disclose details of their agreement. Ms. Hicks had filed suit against the Maersk subsidiary in June for sexual assault and harassment during her cadet Sea Year in 2019. 

The sexual assault took place during Hick’s Sea Year as a midshipman at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. She published a graphic account of her experiences aboard the ship leading up to the assault and rape aboard the Alliance Fairfax, which said took place when she was 19 years old by a 60-plus-year-old first engineer aboard the ship. The publication of her account led to the suspension of the Sea Year program and investigations by both Maersk and calls by MARAD for action. 

“It is important to me that my case has brought greater awareness of the issue of sexual assault and harassment at sea,” said Hicks in the joint statement. “The leadership of MLL has expressed the need for change. The changes that MLL has proposed are an important first step, but there is still a lot of work to be done in the maritime industry.”

After Hicks came forward with her account of her Sea Year, a second USMMA cadet also came forward. She also reported being sexually assaulted and having a similar work environment experience aboard the same ship a year after Hicks. Known only as “Midshipman Y” she also filed suit against the Maersk subsidiary. Settlement talks are reportedly ongoing with this second case scheduled to return to court next month.

“We want to be absolutely clear that the events Ms. Hicks describes are unacceptable. No matter who and where you are, those who work with us must feel safe and protected in our work environment,” said William Woodhour, CEO of Maersk Line, Limited in the joint statement. “The parties agree that all industry partners need to work together to ensure that all of our mariners are provided with a respectful and safe work environment at sea.”

After the publication of Hicks’ accounts of her experience at sea, Maersk commenced an investigation reporting that it was undertaking a comprehensive review that reportedly reached the corporate headquarters in Denmark. MLL acknowledged as part of its agreement with Hicks that it has initiated a full program of training, reporting, and accountability internally, and is working externally with all industry stakeholders, to include its industry partners, labor unions, the Maritime Administration, the maritime academies, and the U.S. Coast Guard. 

Accusations of an abusive work environment and sexual assault have continued to surface across the industry. Earlier this year, a male deck cadet filed a complaint with the U.S. Coast Guard regarding his experiences while recently two other female USMMA cadets accused a captain of sexual assault. In the first case, the USCG suspended the officer’s license for one year while the master in the most recent cases voluntarily surrendered his license before the USCG hearing began.

The USMMA has resumed its Sea Year training after further overhauls to the program. The 2021 suspension was the second after an earlier stand down due to accusations over the safety of cadets at sea. Last week, MARAD appointed the first female superintendent to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Retired Rear Admiral Joanna Nunan MARAD said understands the challenges “to ensuring USMMA prepares students in a safe and respectful environment to excel in a maritime industry undergoing rapid change.”