Before graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy this Saturday, Hope Hicks said she had a piece of unfinished business as a cadet: suing Maersk, the shipping giant she says failed to protect her from being raped.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Nassau County (N.Y.) Supreme Court, Hicks alleged Maersk Line, Limited, a U.S. subsidiary, put her in danger while she was stationed aboard a company ship as part of her education. Hicks’s anonymous online account of assault last year raised concerns on Capitol Hill, prompting the on-the-job “Sea Year” training to be temporarily paused – a move that echoed a 2016 halt that was intended to bring change.
Hicks said she decided to go public with her name now to signal to fellow cadets that they can take similar actions to defend themselves.
Hicks said she was raped by a supervisor on the M/V Alliance Fairfax in 2019 when she was 19. Hicks’s lawyers also submitted a second suit, on behalf of a woman who said she faced sexual harassment and unwanted touching as a cadet aboard the same vessel two years later. She would lock herself in the bathroom and sleep on the floor at night while holding a pocketknife for protection, her lawyers wrote.
“For it to be the same ship that I was on, it just feels horrible,” Hicks said in an interview this week with The Washington Post. “It feels like maybe I could have done more.”
Maersk officials said the company does not comment on pending litigation but noted that any allegation is taken seriously.
“We have zero tolerance for assault, harassment or any form of discrimination on our vessels or in our company,” Maersk Line, Limited, said in a statement. The company said staffers have been told “we will not tolerate any breach of our policies regarding the fair treatment of all personnel.”
After Hicks’s anonymous account was published in September, senior leaders from the Transportation Department and its Maritime Administration, which oversees the academy, offered “unwavering support for the individual who has shared her story of a sexual assault that took place during Sea Year.” The officials said they had zero tolerance for sexual assault and sexual harassment and would take swift preventive action.
Hicks, 22, said serious problems remain for cadets at sea. “This industry is a very rough world for women to be in, and it should not be that way,” she said.
The lawsuit also marks the latest step in Hicks’s evolution after she said she woke up naked and bruised in her stateroom after a port stop in Aqaba, Jordan, where she said members of the all-male crew bought large amounts of alcohol.
According to the suit, she confided in a fellow student that she had been raped after blacking out, following a night when she was coerced to drink 10 shots of alcohol. She said she was too afraid for her safety to report the attack at the time. If she had asked to be removed from the ship, it would have taken two weeks living at sea in the room beside her alleged attacker before reaching the next port, according to Hicks and her suit.
“I was scared for my life,” she told The Post. “I just didn’t know what extent people were going to go to try to cover this up if I were to come forward.”
After finishing her assignment and returning to the Merchant Marine Academy to continue her studies, Hicks began working in 2021 as a victim advocate at the academy’s Kings Point, N.Y., campus, where she said she heard from others who were sexually assaulted or harassed.
“Nothing’s going to change unless people speak out,” Hicks said. “If I get chewed up because of this, then that’s just something I have to face.”
Her lawsuit alleges Maersk should have known the risks cadets face, alleging the company failed to take steps to prevent a foreseeable assault. Maersk, like other shippers, had long hired cadets onto their ships as part of required academy training.
According to the suit, for example, the company did not have a system on the Alliance Fairfax to track or restrict the use of master keys. Her alleged attacker, who was not named in the suit, and other crew members had access to master keys and “unfettered” access to her room, the suit alleges.
Hicks said that there was no WiFi to communicate outside the ship and that she feared asking the captain to use a satellite phone, leaving her unable to call for help, the suit alleges.
Writing anonymously as “Midshipman X,” Hicks described the incident in an online post in September. Maersk said subsequently in tweets it was “deeply disturbed by the allegation of assault on our vessel.” The company said it suspended five officers and crew members and would pursue “broader actions” and examine workplace policies.
The company this week declined to comment on their employment status or its internal findings.
Lawyers attempted to file a second complaint to the state court Tuesday on behalf of “Midshipman-Y,” who alleges she “endured sexualized jokes, sexual advances, and unwanted sexual touching” as a cadet aboard the Alliance Fairfax in 2021, when she was 18. The court instructed lawyers to resubmit the suit through a special process for filing under a pseudonym, they said.
The complaint says a crew member repeatedly snuck up behind the woman on the ship.
“Over the course of approximately 30 days, he touched Midshipman-Y without her permission, including on her waist and buttocks, on approximately 12 different occasions,” according to the suit.
At one point, while she was playing a card game called “Egyptian Rat Slap,” the crew member told her: “You’re the only girl. We should pull your pants down, lay you on the table, and let everyone slap your” rear end, according to the suit.
The suit alleges that a satellite texting device issued by the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, which was meant to provide an emergency connection to land, failed to work much of the time. After eventually reaching a port, Midshipman-Y cried as she spoke to her mother and decided to ask that she be removed from the ship, the suit says. The cadet spoke with an onshore Maersk representative, who, according to the suit, responded, “This can’t keep happening.”
The woman is on leave from the academy because of stress caused by the sexual harassment, according to the suit.
Christine Dunn, a lawyer at the firm Sanford Heisler Sharp who is among those representing Hicks and “Midshipman-Y,” said federal prosecutors are weighing whether to prosecute the man who Hicks said raped her.
“The individual committed a criminal act. There’s no denying that, and that is between him and the prosecutors,” Dunn said. “But the problem is bigger than one individual perpetrator.”
The two women are seeking compensatory and punitive damages from Maersk.
Hicks said she is taking an officer position with the Navy after graduation.
The Maritime Administration released new sexual assault and harassment prevention standards on Dec. 15. In a letter the following day, Transportation Department officials told cadets that Sea Year assignments would resume that month under the stricter standards. With the new rules, cadets are given satellite phones and shipping companies were told to better track and control the use of master keys.
The academy also implemented a new “amnesty” policy to ensure assault survivors and witnesses aren’t disciplined for misconduct, such as underage drinking, around the time of an assault.
Maersk has signaled it is working to comply with the new prevention standards. It is seeking to hire a “Maritime Cultural Transformation Superintendent” to spearhead prevention and be responsible for “championing positive cultural changes that create dignity and respect” on its ships, according to a job posting.