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King County Judge Finds American Seafoods Negligent for Crane Access on the F/T AMERICAN DYNASTY and Awards Damages to Injured Combination Worker

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.

American Seafoods Company has adopted a safety program and the company’s extensive safety standards are contained in its Health, Safety & Environmental Manual.  The program is specific and covers a number of safety topics, including ladder safety.  In the General Safety Procedures section on page 37, the company established general safety policies:  “The following rules have been established for the vessel and all crew members must comply . . .”  Id. (emphasis added).  On page 38, the company instituted a policy that required that all rungs of ladders be uniformly spaced with rungs approximately 12-inches apart:  “Rungs of Ladders should be uniformly spaced at approximately 12 inches, center to center.”  Id. at 38 (emphasis added).

Despite the company’s own clear policy on ladder safety, the rungs of the ladder were not uniformly spaced and were not approximately 12-inches apart as mandated by the policy.  The top ladder coming down from the control tower had rungs that were uniformly spaced 12-inches apart, but the transition to the bottom ladder is over 17-inches down and 4.18 inches over at a 90-degree angle to the upper ladder.  It is unknown when the lower ladder rungs were installed on the crane pedestal or who installed them.  The two rungs appeared to have been installed at different times and are configured differently.  The ladder strikes the inboard-side of the bulkhead when it rotates inboard.  The reach required from the upper ladder to the lower ladder of approximately 17-inches is 42% more than the standard of 12-inches in the company’s safety policy.  Moreover, the space between rungs is not uniform.  The step up from the deck to the first rung is 24-inches, the distance between the lower rung and upper rung is 17-inches, and the distance from the top of the lower ladder and the bottom of the upper ladder is at least 17-inches.

Under the Jones Act, an employer has a duty to provide a safe place to work and reasonably safe tools and equipment to perform the work.  See, e.g., Bailey v. Central Vermont Railway, 319 U.S. 350 (1943); Ribitzki v. Canmar Reading & Bates, 111 F.3d 658, 662 (9th Cir. 1997); Glynn v. Roy Al Boat Mgmt. Corp., 57 F.3d 1495, 1498 (9th Cir. 1995); Johnson v. Griffiths S.S. Co., 150 F.2d 224 (9th Cir. 1945).  To keep the workplace safe, an employer has a duty to promulgate and enforce safety rules to protect workers.  See, e.g., Ybarra v. Burlington Northern, Inc., 689 F.2d 147, 150 (8th Cir. 1980) (“When the evidence shows that the employer customarily does not enforce a safety rule, the jury is entitled to consider whether that custom constituted negligence and whether it caused, in whole or part, the plaintiff’s injury.”)  A maritime employer is liable under the Jones Act for failure to provide a safe workplace “when it knows or should know of a potential hazard in the workplace, yet fails to exercise reasonable care to inform and protect its employees.”  Gallose v. Long Island R.R., 878 F.2d 80, 84-85 (2nd Cir. 1989); Perkins v. American Electric Power Fuel Supply, Inc., 246 F.3d 593 (6th Cir. 2001) (employer has a duty to adequately guard against known risks of injury).  Reasonable care is determined in light of whether a particular danger was foreseeable.  See, e.g., Gallick v. Baltimore & O.R.R., 372 U.S. 108 (1963).

Hoffas slipped while he attempted to descend the non-uniform distance of over 17-inches down and 4.18 inches over to the lower ladder at a 90-degree angle to the upper ladder.  The non-uniform and longer distance combined with the change in direction was a proximate cause of his fall off the ladder.