USMMA midshipman goes public in alleged rape case on board Maersk USA vessel

A US Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) midshipman who last year described how she was raped by her superior officer while serving as an engine cadet aboard a Maersk cargo ship, has been revealed as Hope Hicks. She is one of two USMMA students being represented by Sanford Heisler Sharp and Maritime Legal Solutions. Sharp said on Tuesday June 14th that Hicks and Midshipman Y filed two related complaints in New York state court against Maersk Line Ltd, alleging that the company, a subsidiary of Denmark-based AP Moller-Maersk Group, failed to protect midshipmen adequately from sexual assault and sexual harassment. The midshipmen were working on the Maersk Line Ltd their ships as part of the USMMA’s Sea Year programme, which sees students work on commercial ships for months at a time to gain practical shipboard experience.

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.

Hicks’ complaint alleges she was the only woman aboard her assigned Maersk-owned and -operated vessel Alliance Fairfax 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.

When Hicks confronted the officer, she was told no one would believe her if she made a report, according to the complaint.

Hicks has said that she was now suffering 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. Midshipman-Y’s complaint alleges that she 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 favourably than male crewmembers because she was a woman.

Midshipman-Y pleaded with USMMA representatives to get her off the ship prior to the completion of her required sea time. Midshipman-Y said that as a result of her experiences she had to take an academic setback and remained unsure if she would ever be emotionally capable of completing the USMMA.

Both complaints alleged that Maersk was aware of the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment on its ships. It was noted that US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx suspended the Sea Year programme in 2016 amid allegations of rampant 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.

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 and that 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 crew members.

The complaints assert that Maersk’s conduct violates the Jones Act because the 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.

A Maersk Line Ltd spokesman said that the company had only just received the information on the pending lawsuits and that it would now review the documents.

“Maersk Line, Limited would like to reiterate that we have zero tolerance for assault, harassment or any form of discrimination on our vessels or in our company. 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,” the spokesperson said.

Following the publication of Midshipman-X’s story last year, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg again suspended the Sea Year program in November 2021.