AP Møller-Maersk Takes Action on Sea Year Sexual Assault Case

maersk line limited
File image courtesy MLL

Published Oct 10, 2021 8:42 PM by The Maritime Executive

Danish shipping giant AP Moller-Maersk is investigating a sexual assault case aboard a vessel operated by its U.S.-flag subsidiary, launching a comprehensive inquiry and suspending five American mariners.

A former cadet's recent account of a sexual assault aboard an unnamed Maersk Line Limited (MLL) vessel has received widespread attention in the U.S. maritime community. The cadet is a current midshipman at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), and she was embarked as part of the academy's Sea Year training program. USMMA has previously attracted scrutiny for its challenges in managing the risk of sexual assault: after a series of unfavorable developments in 2016, the U.S. Department of Transportation temporarily halted USMMA's Sea Year program for a review of its sexual assault / sexual harrassment prevention protocols. 

The latest allegations were published late last month, and they have renewed a longstanding debate over the extent of sexual misconduct in the merchant marine. The cadet's account includes a shipboard sexual assault by a senior officer on an MLL vessel; a pattern of alcohol abuse on the same vessel; an anecdotal report of five other sexual assaults involving USMMA midshipmen; and the contention that sexual misconduct and harassment are still widespread at USMMA and in the Sea Year program, five years after the stand-down. In response, USMMA's parent agencies - the Maritime Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation - have stepped in again to "determine the steps required to increase and ensure the safety" of the academy's students. 

The story has also reached the headquarters of MLL parent company AP Moller-Maersk, the largest ocean carrier in the world - even reaching the desk of APMM CEO Søren Skou, according to Danish business outlet Berlingske. 

"There are enough details for us to be able to identify which ship and which employees are involved. That is why we have something that forms the basis for initiating an investigation, and that is why we have suspended the five involved officers who [were] on the ship," APMM technical manager Palle Laursen told the outlet. "We are deeply shaken by this. 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."

The information obtained in the investigation will likely be handed over to the police, and Laursen told Berlingske that it is possible that the inquiry may look at other mariners as well.

"“We are shocked and deeply saddened about what we have read. We take this situation seriously and are disturbed by the allegations made in this anonymous posting, which has only recently been brought to our attention. We do everything we can to ensure that all of our workplace environments, including vessels, are a safe and welcoming workplace, and we’ve launched a top to bottom investigation," said Bill Woodhour, CEO of Maersk Line Limited, in a media statement.  

It is not the first time that an MLL vessel has been touched by a sexual assault scandal. In November 2020, MLL was fined $10,000 for failing to disclose a report of sexual assault on the Maersk Idaho to the Coast Guard, as required by 46 USC § 10104. It was the first fine ever issued to a vessel operator for this violation, according to Maritime Legal Aid. The advocacy organization contends that the fine reflects a pattern and practice of non-disclosure at MLL; MLL disputes this characterization and is contesting the fine in administrative proceedings.

AP Moller-Maersk has historically declined to provide detailed information about sexual assault and sexual harassment within its global organization, citing confidentiality. However, Palle Laursen told Berlingske that "overall, we do not have the impression that this is a widespread phenomenon at Maersk."