Articles Posted in Admiralty & Maritime law

IMG_8848-300x200On January 31, 2019 at approximately 10 p.m., the F/V SCANDIES ROSE sank near Sutwik Island, Alaska with seven crew members on board.  According to a news release by the U.S. Coast Guard, two survivors were rescued and five crew members remain missing from the 130-foot crab fishing vessel.  When the Coast Guard arrived at the scene, visibility was almost zero but they were able to see the faint lights of the life raft holding the two rescued crew members.  The search for the missing crew members included a span of 1400-square miles with weather reported at the scene of 60 mph winds.  The Coast Guard used four MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crews, two HC-130 Hercules airplane crews, and the Coast Guard Cutter Mellon in an attempt to find the missing crew members.  After 20-hours of searching, the U.S. Coast Guard made the difficult decision to suspend the search for the missing crew on January 1, 2020 at 6:08 p.m.

At the time of the incident, our law firm was involved in pending litigation in King County Superior Court against the vessel for alleged unsafe crab pot stacking practices that led to a career-ending crew injury.  The captain of the vessel had recently given a deposition in the crab pot stacking case on December 12, 2019 and some of the other crew members were witnesses in the case.  In his deposition, the captain gave extensive testimony about his crab pot stacking practices.  Our lawyers and expert boarded the F/V SCANDIES ROSE in Seattle on May 18, 2019 as part of the investigation into the case and inspected the vessel and its equipment.  Because the stability of the F/V SCANDIES ROSE in icing conditions may be a substantial issue in the investigation into the sinking, the testimony of the captain and other evidence collected in our case could be important to the investigation and any litigation.  Our sincere condolences go out to the families and friends of the missing crew members.  By all accounts, they were brave men doing a difficult job and they will be deeply missed by all.

Under the Jones Act, the personal representative of the estate of a seaman lost at sea may bring a cause of action for wrongful death for the benefit of (1) a surviving spouse and children; (2) parents; and (3) dependent next of kin.  45 U.S.C. § 59.  Common law spouses may recover, if, looking to applicable state law, the existence of common law marriage is recognized.  The recoverable damages for wrongful death under the Jones Act include damages for loss of financial support, loss of nurture and guidance to minor children, loss of service, and pre-death pain and suffering.  See e.g., Centeno v. Gulf Fleet Crews, Inc., 798 F.2d 138 (5th Cir. 1987).  If you have questions about the remedies available under the Jones Act for wrongful death, feel free to contact our law firm for a free consultation to discuss maritime law remedies under these circumstances.  Because of the complexity of these issues and the unique nature of maritime law, it is important that you consult with an experienced maritime injury law attorney.

On September 5, 2018, in Hoffas v. American Seafoods Company, King County Superior Court Cause No. 17-2-01150-9 SEA, a King County Superior Court judge held that American Seafoods was “. . . negligent for failing to provide [the injured seaman] with a safe place to work on March 2, 2016 because the access to the mid-ship crane control was not reasonably safe, violated the company’s own policies, and violated relevant industry standards, without handholds . . .” on board the F/T AMERICAN DYNASTY.

The injured combination worker was ordered to operate the starboard mid-ship crane to assist with deck operations.  The mid-ship crane was a knuckle-style crane with the capacity to reach all parts of the trawl deck.  The crane was stowed in a cradle forward of the crane when it was not in use and can rotate 360-degrees.  It was equipped with a wireless remote control that allows the crew to operate the crane from anywhere on the deck to stay out of the weather and avoid having to climb up into the control tower.  Unfortunately, the remote control was not available on March 2, 2016 because it was broken or the chief engineer had taken it out-of-service to avoid the crew misplacing the unit.  Because he could not use the remote control, Hoffas had to climb up into the control tower using a fixed ladder on the base of the crane pedestal and then transfer 90-degrees to a fixed ladder that extended up to the control tower.  When Hoffas had finished using the crane, he attempted to descend down the fixed ladder from the control tower.  There were no hand-holds for the lower ladder.  As he stepped down from the top ladder trying to rotate 90-degrees to the top rung of lower ladder, Hoffas slipped on the first rung of the lower ladder and fell hard 3-5 feet to the deck.  The distance between the bottom rung of the upper ladder and top rung of the lower ladder was at least 17-inches down and 4.18 inches over.  Hoffas testified that the upper ladder was loose from striking the bulkhead on the other side of its rotation multiple times and that a control cord was wrapped around the rungs of the upper ladder.  During the fall, Hoffas twisted his left knee and was seriously injured.  The photograph below shows the ladders coming down from the control tower:

The Ladder Violates American Seafoods’ Own Safety Standards.

Scene-Photos-003-300x199On January 23, Ninth Circuit decided Batterson v. Dutra Grp. which addressed the whether punitive damages are available in an unseaworthiness cause of action. Following last year’s unanimous Washington State Supreme Court decision in Tabingo v. Am. Triumph LLC, 188 Wn.2d 41 (March 9, 2017), a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circiut answered the question in the affirmative, holding that punitive damages may be awarded in unseaworthiness cases to punish conduct which manifests reckless or callous disregard for the rights of others, gross negligence, actual malice, or criminal indifference.

This means that seamen asserting an unseaworthiness cause of action in courts within the Ninth Circuit, and in Washington State Courts, may claim punitive damages. . . . at least for now. The U.S. Supreme Court denied cert in Tabingo, supra, on January 8, but the shipowner in Batterton will almost surely seek Supreme Court review. There is currently a circuit split on this issue, as the Fifth Circuit ruled against the availability of punitive damages in McBride v. Estis Well Serv., L.L.C., 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014), cert denied, 135 S. Ct. 2310, 191 L.Ed.2d 978 (2015). It remains to be seen whether the U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on the issue.

Historically, courts in the Ninth Circuit and elsewhere have had an on-and-off relationship with punitive damages in unseaworthiness actions. In 1987, the Ninth Circuit held in Evich v. Morris that:

 5-10-13 photo law booksMaintenance and cure has been recognized in the United States courts dating back to 1823 when it was determined by the court that seamen by nature of their profession are particularly prone to injury and illness and are often ill-equipped to handle the expense of such. If while in service of a vessel, traveling to the vessel (in some instances), or on shore leave, a seaman is injured, falls ill or aggravates a pre-existing injury or illness, it is the duty of the ship-owner to provide the seaman with ‘maintenance’, which is a daily stipend intended to cover their room and board expenses while recuperating. The seaman’s employer has the duty to pay maintenance promptly until maximum medical improvement has been reached. Maintenance is most commonly paid twice per month.

Medical Cure

All reasonable and necessary medical treatment related to an injury or illness which occurred while in service of a vessel is considered “cure”. Seamen have the right to choose their own medical providers and are under no obligation to receive treatment from doctors selected by their employer. Generally a seaman’s health care providers bill the vessel owner directly for any treatments falling under cure. Employers must promptly reimburse the seaman for any out of pocket expenses relating to their treatment, including the cost of travel to medical appointments.

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Congress has postponed new regulations that would require fishing vessels under 36 feet to carry inflatable life rafts when going more than three miles offshore to the fishing grounds. President Obama signed the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015 on February 8, 2016 and it now calls for a formal rule making process before any new regulations will go into effect. It is anticipated that the rule making process may take a year or more to complete, including a public comment period, a review period, and then codification of the final rules. For now, smaller fishing boats may still operate out to 12 miles from shore without a survival raft and larger boats can operate out to 12 miles with a buoyant device or life float.

Despite the delay in the regulations, we are hopeful that the new regulations will eventually go into place to safeguard the lives of fishermen working on smaller boats. Life rafts cost approximately $2,500 but are critical equipment in the event that the fishing vessel begins to sink. Heavy weather and wave conditions on the Pacific Coast make smaller vessels vulnerable to sinking and capsizing. It takes longer for the U.S. Coast Guard to reach fishing vessels that are sinking more than three miles offshore and life rafts will provide extra safety for crews waiting for Coast Guard rescues.

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Seamen who are injured in the course of their employment in an incident caused by the negligence of their employer could file lawsuits against the employers seeking compensation under the federal Jones Act. However, those who are from Washington need to know the requirements that must be met for such a case.

The first thing that the seamen must demonstrate is that their injuries occurred on a navigable vessel. The U.S. Supreme Court defines the term “vessel” as any watercraft or man-made contraption that is or can be used for water transportation. For example, a submersible oil rig is considered a vessel, while a fixed oil rig is not because it does not allow for transport over water.

The second requirement that seamen must demonstrate is that they were seamen when their injuries occurred. There is no fixed definition for the term “seaman,” so courts decide this issue in each case after assessing the employee’s duties and how much time the plaintiff spent on the vessel when making a determination. However, the general guideline is that a seaman has to help with the operation or mission fulfillment of the vessel.

The cruise industry has suffered a great deal in recent years. Sometimes due to reckless behavior, sometimes due to negligent behavior and sometimes due to no identifiable fault on the part of the liners, passengers have been suffering cruise ship injuries, cruise-related illnesses and have been stranded at sea on a number of recent occasions.

Most recently, over 300 passengers and crew aboard a cruise ship owned by the Royal Caribbean line fell very ill during what should have been a relaxing trip. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the illness afflicting these patients was norovirus. Norovirus is highly contagious and generally spreads when one comes in contact with a contaminated surface, an infected person and/or contaminated food.

While norovirus is not a potentially fatal disease, it is deeply unpleasant. Passengers and crew aboard the Royal Caribbean ship experienced severe gastrointestinal symptoms as a result of the virus, including diarrhea, stomach cramps and vomiting. Many passengers are likely outraged that they experienced this illness aboard the ship. Yet it is not completely clear whether or not they will be able to sue the line successfully in regards to the harm they suffered onboard.

Nearly one year ago, the president issued an executive order entitled Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity. This executive order clearly states that the policy of the U.S. government is to increase the sharing of information related to cyber threats with the private sector. In sharing this information, the government hopes to empower the private sector to better protect itself against cyber threats.

It is critical that marine employers take advantage of the efforts that the federal government has made in response to this particular executive order. Not only do cybersecurity threats pose hazards to general data intrusion, certain threats can prove to be truly hazardous to maintaining maritime safety.

For example, if a certain cybersecurity threat was launched against a vessel and that vessel’s systems were not prepared to contain and repel the threat, the intrusion could dramatically impact the functioning of any affected system. Given that an increasingly substantial number of operations are contained within on-board electronics, compromise could be hazardous not only to general vessel operations but also to occupants of the vessel.

Over the past several years, the cruise industry has begun to develop a negative reputation. In addition to ships getting stuck at sea, ships have crashed and have hosted a number of passenger injuries and deaths. If you or any of your loved ones have suffered cruise ship injuries over the past few years, you may still be reeling from the experience. After all, no one books a cruise ship vacation with the expectation of arriving home injured and emotionally taxed.

Some cruise ship passengers are pressured into settling their claims or dropping them altogether. The cruise industry employs powerful advocates who aim to keep their liability costs low. As a result, it is important that injured cruise ship passengers immediately retain the counsel of attorneys experienced in cruise ship claims. These attorneys will be able to help you navigate your claim and obtain the financial compensation you deserve.

“But wait!” you may say. “The Contract of Carriage I agreed to when I purchased my ticket prohibits me from filing a claim against the cruise ship company.” Please understand that while you are correct in that purchasing your ticket did automatically bind you to certain legal provisions drawn up by the cruise company, this agreement does not necessarily bar you from bringing a successful claim. An experienced attorney will be able to help you navigate your legal options, even if you signed a waiver indicating that you would not sue the cruise line in the event of accident or injury.

Longshoremen are skilled professionals trained to work safely and effectively on potentially hazardous docks and piers. Tragically, even the most conscientious dock workers can suffer devastating injuries when accidents occur. When longshoremen suffer injuries, they generally have the right to collect workers’ compensation. Under certain circumstances, they may also be able to file additional claims under the theories of product liability, premises liability and/or personal injury.

It is critical that accident victims file claims that best fit the unique circumstances of their cases. Many dock and pier accident victims suffer severe injuries that can impair their ability to work and to function generally for a long period of time. Among the most common serious injuries that longshoremen suffer are spinal cord injuries, joint injuries, burns and traumatic brain injuries. When successful claims are filed, workers can obtain the compensation they need in order to treat these injuries and to move forward in life in the healthiest ways possible. Workers are often entitled to pain and suffering awards as well as compensation for medical bills and for wages lost as a result of their injuries.

Injured longshoremen often receive a great deal of moral support from fellow members of the International Longshore Warehouse Union (ILWU) and from co-workers in the maritime industry. However, it is critical to seek professional support as well when you have been injured on the docks. An experienced attorney who has worked extensively with longshoremen in the past will best understand what claims to file and how to ensure the success of those claims.

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