USMMA cadet suits: Women assaulted, abused on training ships during year at sea
A pair of female U.S. Merchant Marine Academy cadets have filed lawsuits against international shipping giant Maersk, alleging the company failed to protect them from sexual assault and harassment during the school's "Sea Year" program.
The suits, which were filed Tuesday in state Supreme Court in Mineola, describe a fraternity house atmosphere aboard Maersk Line Limited ships in which female cadets were subjected to unwanted touching, forced to perform menial tasks not asked of male midshipmen and threatened with retaliation if they came forward.
One lawsuit was filed on behalf of Hope Hicks, a USMMA cadet set to graduate Saturday before joining the U.S. Navy.
Hicks, 22, of Georgia, made headlines last year after disclosing — anonymously at the time — on a maritime whistleblower website that an engineering supervisor 40 years her senior plied her with alcohol, waited until she was incapacitated and raped her on a commercial ship in 2019.
When Hicks, who was 19 at the time and the only woman onboard, confronted the supervisor, he told her "no one is ever going to believe you," the complaint said.
"It took me a very long time to recover from what happened and I would say that I'm still not fully recovered," Hicks said in an interview Wednesday. "But after a while, I just realized that the problem is bigger than myself. And a lot of people need help and nobody actually speaks for them and seeks change in the maritime industry."
Hicks' disclosure prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation to suspend, for the second time, the Sea Year program, in which midshipmen are required to complete more than 300 days of work on commercial vessels in international waters.
Maersk later suspended five crew members and launched its own investigation into the alleged assault. Prosecutors in the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida, have opened a criminal investigation into Hicks’ allegations, said her attorney, Christine Dunn of the Washington, D.C., firm of Sanford Heisler Sharp.
The other suit was filed on behalf of a female midshipman who alleges she experienced extreme sexual harassment and unwanted touching from a Maersk electrician while on board the same vessel, the Alliance Fairfax, in 2021. She was 18 at the time of the abuse, the complaint said.
The woman, identified as "Midshipman Y," said in the suit she was so frightened of being raped that she slept in a locked bathroom holding a knife. She departed the ship before her tour ended and has since taken a leave of absence from the USMMA.
"She experienced panic attacks that landed her in the hospital," said Dunn. "She became ill from the stress and suddenly started doing very badly in her studies, which was never an issue before."
When Midshipman Y, who lives in Florida, tearfully reported the abuse to Maersk, a company employee responded: “This can’t keep happening," according to the suit.
The court papers allege that Maersk was aware of the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment on its ship and that its failure to protect the women violates the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 and the New York State Human Rights Act.
In a statement, Maersk declined to comment on the lawsuits but said "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."
George Rhynedance, a spokesman for the USMMA, which is not named as a defendant in the suits, said the school does not comment on pending litigation.
USMMA, which trains men and women to be midshipmen working on deep sea vessels and in the military, has been the subject of several prior complaints of sexual abuse and harassment. The school is one of five federal service academies and was the first in the nation to admit women.
In 2016, reports of sexual misconduct forced the temporary suspension of the Sea Year program out of the Kings Point academy. But the program resumed in 2017 after USMMA, Maersk and other shipping companies enacted new policies to protect midshipmen from sexual assault and harassment.
But the following year, a former academy soccer player filed a $5 million federal lawsuit against seven then-seniors on the team and three former coaches, claiming he was verbally and physically abused, including by a sexual assault, and that the conduct went unchecked and, in some cases, was encouraged by coaches. The DOT, which oversees the academy, paid the victim $1.4 million in a settlement last December.
Hicks has said she knows of at least five other female cadets in her class who were raped during Sea Year and that all of the roughly 50 women in her class had been sexually harassed, assaulted or degraded during the previous three years.
While she continues to suffer from severe emotional distress, Hicks said she is using her trauma to help others, serving as a victims advocate on campus.
"I'm a very resilient person," she said. "I've been through a lot of adversity in my life and I was not going to let this ruin my dream of graduating from here and getting the job that I wanted."