.In a landmark victory for Alaska fisherman, fish processors, deckhands and seaman, the Supreme Court of Washington has today ruled that an injured Alaska Commercial Fisherman may claim punitive damages when injured as a result of the unseaworthiness of his vessel. The case was filed by a deckhand, Allan Tabingo, who suffered near complete amputation of two fingers while working as a deckhand aboard the American Triumph. Tabingo was on his hands and knees clearing fish from a fish hatch when a fellow crewman improperly activated the controls causing the hatch to close crushing Tabingo’s hand. Realizing his mistake the crewman attempted to stop closing the hatch, but the control handle for the hatch was broken and did not work. Tabingo alleged American Seafoods knew about the broken control handle for the hatch for over two years prior to his injury but failed to repair it.
Tabingo filed suit in King County Superior Court against American Seafoods including in his complaint a cause of action for punitive damages based upon the unseaworthiness of the vessel. Tabingo based his claim for punitive damage upon the Supreme Court of the United States holding in Atlantic Soundings v. Townsend . Relying upon a divided Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, McBride v. Estis, American Seafoods moved to dismiss Tabingo’s punitive damage, this motion was granted by the Superior Court Judge. Tabingo was granted a direct interlocutory appeal by the Washington State Supreme Court.
The Washington Supreme Court ruled in Tabingo’s favor holding that punitive damages were available to injured seaman, fisherman and fish processors in cases involving unseaworthiness claims. The Supreme Court of Washington relied upon Atlantic Soundings, finding that the Atlantic Soundings decision was not limited to maintenance and cure claims, but applied to all general maritime law claims including Tabingo’s claim for unseaworthiness. In rejecting American Seafoods argument the Washington Supreme Court stated that the Miles v. Apex wrongful death case was limited to its facts, and instead found that the rationale of the Supreme Court of the United States in Atlantic Soundings controlled Tabingo’s case and allowed for the punitive damage claim to go forward.
The Supreme Court of the State of Washington noted that allowing for punitive damages in cases such as Tabingo’s is consistent with protecting seaman who are the wards of the maritime courts. The Court held as a matter of law that punitive damages in unseaworthiness actions furthers the purpose of protecting seaman, fisherman and fish processors from injury.
American Seafoods owns a fleet of Alaska factory trawlers and controls the largest portion of the Bering Sea pollock fishery quota. Tabingo’s case will now move on to the next phase of discovery and trial in the King County Superior Court.
Maritime punitive damage claims serve the important purpose of protecting seaman’s rights. Following the million dollar punitive damage verdict in v. Icicle Clausen Seafoods in 2012 there was an almost overnight change in the way insurance companies for Alaska fishing vessels treated maintenance and cure claims for injured fisherman and fish processors. The positive impact of punitive damage claims bring about positive changes in vessel safety and vessel maintenance and requires employers to treat their injured crewman with appropriate and reasonable care. The Tabingo decision will lead to better safety aboard all fishing vessels.