Female USMMA midshipmen file complaints of assault, harassment

Female USMMA midshipmen file complaints of assault, harassment
U.S. Merchant Marine Academy midshipmen Hope Hicks presented sexual assault allegations in October. (Photo courtesy of Jaime Baum)

A pair of female U.S. Merchant Marine Academy midshipmen filed complaints against shipping giant Maersk, alleging the company did not sufficiently protect them from sexual assault and harassment while working on its ships.

The complaints were filed to the Nassau County Supreme Court’s Torts-Other Negligence Court on Tuesday morning. Maersk Line, Limited was listed as the defense in both complaints and both midshipmen are seeking back pay, front pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages and payment for all attorneys’ fees, costs and expenses.

The company, in a statement to Blank Slate Media, said they were reviewing the documents and emphasized a zero-tolerance policy for assault. 

“Maersk Line Ltd. would like to reiterate that we have zero tolerance for assault, harassment or any form of discrimination on our vessels or in our company,” the statement read. “We take all allegations of assault or harassment very seriously, and we remain committed to ensuring that the shipboard environment is safe, supportive and welcoming to all. As communicated to the entire Maersk and Maersk Line, Limited fleet, we will not tolerate any breach of our policies regarding the fair treatment of all personnel.”

One of the complaints was filed by Hope Hicks, who previously detailed her accounts of alleged sexual assault under the alias “Midshipmen-X.” Hicks was a 19-year-old virgin at the time of the incident when she was allegedly assaulted by the 60-year-old supervisor, whose name was also not disclosed in her account. The supervisor who raped her, she said, made derogatory comments to her and other women on the ship.

“He was creepy, made romantic passes at me and made crude and demeaning comments about me in front of other members of the engine department,” Hicks said in the account. “It was a difficult work environment, to say the least, and not what I had expected Sea Year to be like.”

After around 50 days at sea, the ship pulled into a Middle East port where the officers purchased “a lot of alcohol,” according to Hicks. She said she was pressured to drink alcohol by older men and supervisors on the ship.

Hicks said her male sea partner enjoyed drinking and she felt an additional pressure to fit in, despite not having had any alcohol prior to arriving at the academy. As she continued drinking, the cadet said, her sea partner became sick and was taken back to his room. 

Hicks said she blacked out shortly after taking roughly another eight to 10 shots of alcohol. The next morning, she woke up naked in her bed with a massive hangover and noticed blood on her sheets.

“I knew immediately that I had been raped,” she said. “I was a virgin and had been saving myself, and as soon as I woke up I could feel that I was very sore and knew exactly what had happened.”

Hicks said she knew at least five women out of the 50 in her class who were raped during their Sea Year.

The second complaint was filed by another female cadet, under the alias “Midshipman-Y,” who said she was warned by another female cadet who completed work on the Alliance Fairfax ship that the nearly all-male crew was filled with “creepy” individuals.

The cadet warned Midshipman-Y, an 18-year-old at the time, that she should not work out in the presence of men, refrain from wearing shorts and engage in any behavior that men could misinterpret as “provocative,” according to the complainant.

Midshipman-Y, in the complaint, said she endured unwanted sexual touching and advances along with sexualized jokes. Her experience was so harmful to her that she said she began to sleep in the bathroom clutching a knife. The bathroom, she said, was the only door that could not be unlocked by other crew members who had master keys.

Midshipman-Y’s direct supervisor, the chief mate, allegedly treated her worse than other male counterparts, constantly belittling her and made her do tasks outside of her job description, according to the complaint.

The chief mate’s alleged discriminatory behavior became too much for her to deal with, she said, and feared the harassment would continue until she was eventually raped. The midshipman requested an emergency evacuation. Maersk’s designated person ashore allegedly told her “this can’t keep happening,” once she informed them of her evacuation request.

The midshipman said she endured panic attacks and suffered “debilitating emotional distress” as a result of the harassment and ultimately took a leave of absence from the academy, located in Kings Point. She had not returned to the academy as of Tuesday and said she is unsure if she ever will be able to, according to the complaint.

“What happened to Hope and Midshipman-Y was both foreseeable and preventable by Maersk,” Steven J. Kelly, partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp and counsel for plaintiffs said in a release. “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.”

Maersk Line Ltd. is an organization that provides U.S. flag transportation, ship management and maritime technical services to the government and various commercial customers. Based in Denmark, the U.S. subsidiary works closely with the academy for its Sea Year program, as previously reported by CNN.

After Hicks’ allegations were publicized in October, the academy suspended its Sea Year program. The program, which dates back to 1942, has a sea period of 135 days for sophomores and 265 days for juniors. Midshipmen earn roughly $1,000 a month during their time at sea, working on commercial vessels and becoming educated on labor relations in the ocean shipping industry, according to the academy’s website.

The allegations from the cadets are not the only ones the academy has faced over the years. In June 2016, former Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx suspended the Sea Year program after allegations of sexual harassment, assault, hazing and bullying.

Four years later, the Department of Justice agreed to a $1.4 million settlement with a former male member of the academy’s soccer team. The man, whose name was not disclosed, alleged he was hazed and sexually assaulted at the academy in 2016.

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