by John Konrad (gCaptain) The U.S. Navy is facing a lawsuit over allegations of a senior engineering officer’s rape by the captain of the USNS Carson City, a Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport ship operated by the Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC). The complaint, filed in federal court in New Jersey by Sanford Heisler Sharp and Maritime Legal Solutions, accuses the US Government of failing to protect US Merchant Mariner Elsie E. Dominguez, the 1st Assistant Engineer, from sexual assault. This lawsuit brings to light serious concerns about safety and accountability within the Navy’s ranks, particularly regarding the protection of US Merchant Mariners from sexual violence.
The lawsuit alleges a harrowing incident that occurred on December 18, 2021. According to the complaint, Dominguez, while off duty and ashore, had her drink spiked with a drug, leading to her blackout. Incapacitated, she was carried back to the ship by fellow crew members and taken to her stateroom. The complaint further details that Ms. Dominguez awoke the following morning to find herself being raped by the Captain of the ship.
A critical aspect of the lawsuit is the allegation that the Captain, also a US Merchant Marine officer employed by the US Navy, gained access to Ms. Dominguez’s room using a master key code while she was unconscious. The complaint argues that the United States was negligent in allowing the Captain unrestricted access and failing to maintain operational security cameras in the passageways, which had been broken for over a year.
Ms. Dominguez is represented in the matter by Sanford Heisler Sharp partners, Christine Dunn and Carolin Guentert, Co-Chairs of the Sexual Violence, Title IX and Victims’ Rights Practice Group. Ms. Dominguez is also represented by J. Ryan Melogy of the New York law firm Maritime Legal Solutions,.
“What happened to Ms. Dominguez was both foreseeable and preventable by the United States and its agents,” Dunn said. “Ms. Dominguez has accomplished so much in a male-dominated career, but she has been greatly harmed by the failure of the United States to protect her while serving her country. This was the Captain of a United States Navy ship and she thought she would be safe, but the United States failed her.”
The aftermath of the assault was equally troubling. Ms. Dominguez claims she faced discouragement from reporting the incident to Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) agents, was dissuaded from seeking medical testing, denied confidential reporting, and even had her job threatened. These allegations point to a systemic failure in handling sexual assault cases and providing adequate support to victims aboard naval vessels. This is also not the first case, in July of last year gCaptain reported on the Chief Officer of the USNS Mercy being removed for allegations of sexual assault. Military Sealift Command has done little to update the press or keep the US Merchant Marine community informed of the legal status of that case leading some to question if they are being fully transparent about assaults.
The complaint also sheds light on the Captain’s alleged history of alcohol abuse and aggressive behavior, raising questions about the oversight and decision-making processes within MSC and the Navy. The lawsuit claims that despite his reported erratic conduct, he was allowed to continue to command the vessel. This situation sharply contrasts with the usual practice in the US Navy, where active duty commanding officers are typically relieved of their command for loss of confidence during ongoing investigations.
“Navy commanding officers are held to high standards of personal and professional conduct,” the US Navy press release said when the eighth Navy officer was relieved for “loss of confidence.” this year. “They are expected to uphold the highest standards of responsibility, reliability and leadership, and the Navy holds them accountable when they fall short of those standards.”
The Navy’s decision not to issue a press release upon the eventual relief of the USNS Carson City’s commanding officer suggests a further indication of a prevailing double standard between US Navy and US Merchant Marine officers in command of naval ships.
This lawsuit represents a critical juncture in a growing series of legal actions following the courageous revelations by Midshipman X, Hope Hicks, who is now a commissioned officer in the US Navy. Hicks’ 2021 revelations about widespread sexual assaults in the US Merchant Marine have cast a spotlight on systemic issues within maritime environments. In the Midshipman X case, Edgar Sison, the accused, chose to voluntarily surrender his license, circumventing a potential judicial hearing.
These incidents, along with others currently under investigation by Maritime Legal Aid and its partner law firms highlight the persistent challenges and dangers that women face in the predominantly male maritime sector. Moreover, they bring into sharp focus the need for a thorough reassessment of the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command’s policies and culture, especially concerning the handling of sexual assault claims and the overall safety of its crew members.
gCaptain conducted interviews with multiple US Merchant Marine officers employed by the US Navy aboard Military Sealift Command vessels. A common thread among these interviews was a palpable sense of frustration regarding the disparate standards applied to US Merchant Marine and US Naval officers serving on the same ships. The interviewees highlighted a concerning trend: US Merchant Marine officers often feel less protected compared to their Naval counterparts.
“The US Navy has solved many of these problems aboard USS ships with robust policies and systems designed to prevent sexual harassment on and to penalize active duty Navy personnel who commit rape,” an MSC officer informed gCaptain. “However, there seems to be a disparity in the level of concern for CIVMARS (the acronym the US Navy uses for US Merchant Mariners working aboard naval vessels), who are often treated more like contractors than as officers of a sister service.”
The disparity between regulations between US Navy and US Merchant Marine officers working aboard naval ships extends beyond sexual harassment. Following the bloody suicide of a US Merchant Marine officer on the bridge of an MSC ship in 2020 three maritime unions issued a joint letter flagged “ongoing and increasingly grave concerns” regarding the mental health and well-being of Merchant Mariners working for Military Sealift Command.
“Ms. Dominguez and other US Merchant Mariners who live aboard U.S. government vessels should not have to live in fear. The United States owes a duty to protect crew members aboard its vessels, and it is failing to live up to that duty,” Melogy said. “Ms. Dominguez is courageously coming forward, at great personal and professional risk to herself, to protect others from similarly traumatic experiences.”
As the legal proceedings unfold, this case is expected to bring critical attention to the safety and rights of US Merchant Mariners working aboard US Navy ships, potentially leading to significant changes in how the U.S. Navy and its associated commands address and prevent sexual violence. It is also not entirely clear how closely senior naval officers in the Pentagon are working to follow new “Safer Seas” legislation enacted by the Senate to protect US Merchant Mariners and the US Maritime Administration’s efforts to curb assaults. This also comes at a time when US Coast Guard leadership, which is responsible for licensing mariners, is facing a sexual harassment scandal of its own.
As this legal case progresses, it is anticipated to draw crucial attention to the safety and rights of US Merchant Mariners serving on US Navy ships, potentially catalyzing significant reforms in the U.S. Navy’s approach to addressing and preventing sexual violence. Additionally, there is some ambiguity regarding the extent of engagement by senior naval officers at the Pentagon in implementing the newly enacted “Safer Seas” legislation by the Senate, aimed at protecting US Merchant Mariners. This legislation aligns with the US Maritime Administration’s efforts to reduce assaults. Concurrently, this issue arises amidst a separate sexual harassment scandal within the US Coast Guard, which holds the responsibility for licensing mariners.
In conclusion, the lawsuit against the U.S. Navy, stemming from the alleged rape of Elsie E. Dominguez aboard the USNS Carson City, is more than just a legal battle; it’s a stark reminder of the urgent need for systemic change in regard to the rights and protections of US Merchant Mariners. This case, along with the courageous disclosures by Midshipman X, Hope Hicks, and others, has shone a spotlight on the deep-rooted issues of sexual violence and the disparity in treatment between US Navy and Merchant Marine officers. It underscores the necessity for the Navy and its associated commands to reassess and strengthen their policies and culture, particularly in protecting those who serve on the seas. As this case unfolds, it holds the potential to be a catalyst for significant reforms, ensuring the safety and rights of all mariners and holding accountable those who fail to uphold the highest standards of conduct and responsibility.
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