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The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that injured seaman and fisherman may claim punitive damages under the general maritime law unseaworthiness doctrine. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is the law that governs the claims for injured seaman that are filed in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California State and Federal Courts. Governing law in these Courts now permit a seaman who is willfully and recklessly injured as a result of the vessel’s unseaworthiness to claim punitive damages.   The standard for an award of punitive damages is “conduct which manifests reckless or callous disregard for the rights of others or gross negligence or actual malice or criminal indifference”. Punitive damages are designed to punish certain wrongful acts and conduct of by the vessel owner and to serve as a deterrent to other vessel to withhold from committing similar wrongful acts.

Punitive damages work. Since the ruling of the Supreme Court in Atlantic Soundings v. Townsend there has been a dramatic shift in the practice of vessel owners in the administration of maintenance and cure benefits. The threat of a potential punitive damage award has resulted in higher maintenance rates, broader approval of medical benefits, and an overall improvement in safety. Unfortunately, there remains many vessel owners who continue to negligent their vessels and operate them in an unseaworthy condition, and who ignore their duties provide proper maintenance and cure benefits. Punitive damages for unseaworthiness will play a vital role in ensuring that vessel owners abided by their duty to maintain and operate their vessels in a seaworthy manner.

The January 26, 2018 in Batterton v. Dutra Group, NO. 15-56775 (9th Cir. 2018) follows the land mark decision of the Supreme Court in Atlantic Soundings v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 464 (2009) and rejected arguments of vessel owner that Miles v. Apex Marine 498 US 19 (1990). The case adopts the Ninth Circuits prior ruling in Evich v. Morris 819 F. 2d 256 (9th Cir. 1987) and rejects the reasoning of the fifth Circuit in McBride vs. Estis Well Services 768 F. 3rd 382 (5th 2014).

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A 42-year-old crewman was airlifted from the trawler F/V Golden Alaska on Wednesday. The crewman was suffering from a hernia. The Coast Guard flight surgeon on call recommended emergency medical evacuation by helicopter.  The injured crewman was able to receive the needed surgical care reportedly within 8 hours of the coast guard being contacted.

Crewmen frequently suffer hernia injuries while working aboard Alaska fishing boats.  Excessive lifting, pulling and pushing can cause a hernia.  Vessel operators should minimize the risks of crewman suffering a hernia.  Minimizing the frequency of lifts and the amount of weight lifted reduces risk of injury.

The facts of this case are unknown at this time. The F/V Golden Alaska was fishing 75 miles from Cold Bay. Weather conditions on scene were 4-foot seas and winds of approximately 17 miles per hour.

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Two injured crewmen have been medevac’d from Alaska fishing vessels 135 miles north of Cold Bay. The crewman aboard the Northern Patriot was reported to have suffered a serious hip injury requiring emergent medical attention. The second crewman developed seasickness with loss of consciousness. The crewmen were both taken to Cold Bay for transfer to Anchorage for further evaluation and treatment.

The Northern Patriot is a 165-foot long trawler owned by Trident Seafoods. The Ocean Peace is a 220-foot long factory trawler. Both vessels are home ported in Seattle, Washington.

Recognizing and reacting to medical emergencies at sea is critical to crewman safety and the ability to recover from injuries. Contacting the Coast Guard for emergency medical advice and possible medical evacuating from a vessel is a vital resource and safety tool all vessel operators should be familiar with. Every vessel operator has a legal duty to provide their crewman prompt emergency medical care. This duty includes consulting with shore side medical experts when necessary to obtain proper medical advice about medical treatment. The duty continues once the crewman reaches shore and the vessel owner has a continuing duty under the maintenance and cure doctrine to pay all reasonable and necessary medical expenses associated with a shipboard injury or illness. This legal duty to provide medical care continues to the crewman reaches maximum medical improvement.

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A crewman was airlifted from the F/V Defender today after suffering a head injury while working aboard the vessel. The Defender is a 154-factory trawler. Early reports indicate the crewman was struck in the head by a 37-pound block of frozen fish. More information about the facts causing the injury are unknown at this time. However, blocks of frozen fish are standard aboard many Alaska factory trawlers. After processing the fish are placed into pans, which are frozen into blocks by the vessel’s plate freezers. The frozen blocks are then placed into bags or boxes and stored in the vessel freezer hold. Crewmen are frequently injured during this process. It is important that all equipment and safety procedures are followed to prevent crewman injury when they are handling frozen cargo.

The accident happened 260 miles north of Cold Bay. A Coast Guard flight surgeon directed the emergency evacuation of the injured crewman.   A Coast Guard helicopter stationed at Cold Bay airlifted the crewman to St. Paul where he was transported to Anchorage for further emergency medical treatment.

Serious head injuries must be promptly treated by emergency medical personnel. Following discharge from the hospital crewman suffering head injuries must be closely watched for signs of post concussive syndrome. Head injuries involving blows to the head can cause mild traumatic brain injuries. Symptoms of brain injury can include memory loss, headaches, personality changes, and depression.

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Dutch Harbor remains the United States top commercial fishing port for 2016. NOAA’s annual fishing data report published last week showed fishing boats delivered 770 million pounds of product to Dutch Harbor in 2016 with a value of 198 million dollars. 2016 marked the 20th consecutive year Dutch Harbor has had the highest volume of commercial fishing landings. Kodiak was in the fourth overall spot in 2016 with 440 million pounds of commercial fish landed with a value of 107 million dollars. Nationally, commercial fishing landings in Alaska accounted for over 50 percent of the total commercial landings for the entire United States.

New Bedford Massachusetts had landings of 106 million pounds but had the highest value of landings at 326 million dollars. New Bedford has held the highest value of commercial fishing landings for 17 consecutive years. Westport Washington had 108 million dollars of commercial landings with a value of 59 million dollars. Top ports in Oregon were Astoria and Newport. The fish landed in Oregon was valued at over 100 million dollars.

Working as a commercial fisherman aboard fishing vessels in Alaska, Washington and Oregon is challenging and demanding work. Catching 770 million pounds of fish in a season comes at a high price for some crewmen in the form of death or serious injury. Commercial fishing remains one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

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Police have arrested a Sitka man in connection with a shooting aboard a fishing boat in Juneau. The incident happened on Saturday, November 4, 2017. Police responding to the shooting in Eliason Harbor found a man with a gunshot wound to his leg and evidence of blunt force trauma to his head.  A woman also found aboard the boat was reported uninjured. Nathan Leask reportedly came to the boat with a handgun and an altercation broke out resulting in one man being shot. Leask then fled the boat on foot. The police subsequently captured Leask in a local home. News sources indicate Leask was charged with first degree assault.

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Deckhand, Juan Martinez died at sea when he went overboard while working aboard the 54-foot tuna fishing vessel Summer Breeze. The vessel owned by Pat Patana was home ported in Chinook Washington.   Martinez was 38 years old and is survived by his partner of 20 years, Lourdes Salvador and his two children.

The tragic incident happened approximately 100 miles west of Ilwaco. First reports indicate Patana reported he thought Martinez slipped and fell overboard while trying to untangle fishing lines. Patana told reporters that he tried to rescue Martinez but was unable to pull Martinez back on board the fishing boat. There were no nearby fishing vessels in the area to help Patana rescue Martinez.

Patana told local newspaper reporters that Martinez was an excellent employee with a strong work ethic.   Patana is organizing a November 11th fundraiser to benefit Martinez family.

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Two crewmen were rescued by the Coast Guard after their fishing vessel caught fire and sank. The incident happened 20 miles west of Cape Blanco. The two fishermen aboard the 47-foot vessel were able to escape to a life raft before the fire consumed the vessel. A lighthouse keeper at Cape Blanco noticed the burning vessel and reported it to the Coast Guard. The details of how the vessel caught fire are unknown at this time.

All vessels must be prepared for emergencies such as this. Fire aboard vessels at sea are extremely dangerous because of the difficulty in fighting the fire. Safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, life rafts, EPIRBS, and VHF radios all should be updated and kept in working order.

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On July 13 2017, Washington State Fish and Wildlife officers and agents for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration served search warrants for records upon Ilwaco’s Pacific Salmon Charters. The investigation relates to allegations that during the May and June halibut season two vessels operating out of Pacific Salmon Charters improperly caught and retained halibut utilizing a practice of high grading the catch. High-grading involves a technique of catching fish and bringing them aboard a vessel, once a limit is reached, the less desirable fish previously caught are replaced when a better fish is subsequently caught. The Washington Department of fish and wildlife claims this practice to violate the strict regulations governing halibut fishing.

According to local news reports in the Chinook Observer, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife received a tip from one of a group of four-charter fishermen from Idaho who had been on a trip aboard the Pacific Salmon Charter’s vessel the Westwind. The fisherman alleged their group was instructed to continue fishing after their limit of one fish had been reached. The charter fisherman described the Westwind engaged in the “high-grading’ tactic. The complaint from the charter fisherman reportedly indicated halibut were placed in the live well of the charter boat but after catching their limit of halibut the boat continued to fish replacing the smaller fish with better quality fish. Several of the halibut that were returned to the ocean were allegedly dead or had their throats’ cut.

A plainclothes officer reportedly went fishing on the Pacific Dream during a one-day opener in June. The officer stated that at the beginning of the trip they were instructed the charter boat crew would not gaff the smaller fish, and would place them in a live well, so the charter fisherman could “size up” at the end of the day. The undercover officer observed the vessel utilize the high-grade procedure with four fish being returned to the ocean for larger fish. The undercover officer reportedly stated that at least one of the four returned fish was dead. Washington State Fish and Game Department officers met the Pacific Dream when it returned to the dock. Initially the crew denied the high-grading allegations but two crewmen reportedly admitted to the practice after finding out a plainclothes officer had been aboard the vessel posing as a charter fisherman.

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Two commercial fishermen were airlifted to safety by a Coast Guard helicopter crew on July 8, 2017. The two crewmen were aboard the 40-foot commercial fishing vessel New Faith and were fishing approximately 52 miles west of Coos Bay.   The crew issued a May Day call stating their vessel was taking on water and sinking. The vessel had been fishing for Albacore tuna and reportedly had one ton of tuna on board and 300 gallons of diesel. The captain of the vessel and the crewmen were airlifted by separate helicopters after attempts to dewater the vessel with the aid of a Coast Guard rescue swimmer failed. The crew of the New Faith was transported to North Bend for medical evaluation and were released without reported injuries.

The cause of the sinking of the New Faith is unknown at this time. Commercial fishing vessels continue to sink at an alarming rate off the Washington and Oregon coast. It is imperative that vessels are equipped with proper safety equipment, including survival suits. The crew of commercial vessels should regularly drill in emergency procedures. All vessels must be kept in a seaworthy condition, and a regular maintenance and repair schedule be followed. The safety of the crew of the vessel is paramount, and any needed repairs threatening the safety of the crew should not be ignored.   In this case the actions of our Coast Guard search and rescue teams saved another fishing vessel crew’s life.