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"Midshipman-X" Reveals Her Identity in Suit Against Maersk Line Ltd.

hicks
Hope Hicks (Sanford Heisler Sharp)

Published Jun 14, 2022 8:15 PM by The Maritime Executive

Two U.S. Merchant Marine Academy midshipmen have filed rare civil lawsuits against a maritime employer over alleged incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment at sea. 

The first of the plaintiffs, current USMMA senior Hope Hicks, has identified herself for the first time as the well-known "Midshipman-X" - the anonymous sexual assault survivor whose story of underway abuse revived the debate over how to safeguard personal security for cadets. The plaintiff in the second, related case is identified only as "Midshipman-Y." She alleges that she suffered severe sexual harassment while underway on the same ship as Hicks, one year after the alleged assault. Both are represented by Sanford Heisler Sharp and Maritime Legal Solutions.

Hicks was the sole woman aboard the MLL-managed ro/ro Alliance Fairfax during her Sea Year deployment in 2019, and she was 19 at the time. In the complaint, she alleges that she was raped by the first engineer on board - after he provided her with alcohol and encouraged her to drink heavily.

Her complaint alleges that MLL "was complacent about its sexual assault and harassment prevention duties." The suit contends that - based on internal communications - Maersk was aware that cadet surveys showed that "SASH is rampant," and should therefore have forseen the risk of sexual assault for a 19-year-old female aboard a ship full of older men. The complaint also alleges a systemic pattern of alcohol consumption on board Alliance Fairfax and ineffective enforcement of MLL's "zero-tolerance" policy against use of alcohol under way. 

The suit is based in part on an unseaworthiness claim: it asserts that by allegedly failing to take action to manage risk of sexual assault, MLL failed to provide Hicks with a seaworthy vessel upon which to work - a duty that typically rests with the shipowner. The suit also alleges violations of New York State's Human Rights Law. 

“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.”

Last year, writing in an open letter as Midshipman-X, Hicks described her ordeal in graphic detail and suggested that she was not the only victim. In her anonymous account, she said that she had knowledge of five other cases of sexual assault involving USMMA midshipmen.

After the publication of Hicks' account, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg suspended the Sea Year program for the second time in five years. In addition, MLL parent company AP Moller-Maersk launched an investigation into the circumstances of the incident, and it suspended five American mariners who had served on Hicks' ship. "The way in which the incident is described is not only contrary to ordinary decency, but also in particular to our values and what we stand for in Maersk," APMM technical manager Palle Laursen told Danish outlet Berlingske at the time.

The two lawsuits both assert that MLL was the owner of Alliance Fairfax. Records show that MLL is the operator, the ISM manager and the Maritime Security Program agreement holder for the vessel. However, the IMO-listed shipowner has a non-Maersk name: Wilmington Trust Co. (as Trustee) and Hoegh Autoliners Shipping AS. Alliance Fairfax is one of three ro/ros affiliated with Alliance Navigation, a Hoegh Autoliners subsidiary providing U.S.-flag services since 2005. It is also affiliated with Farrell Lines, an MLL subsidiary which partners with Alliance Navigation to operate the same three ships. Only MLL is named in the two lawsuits.