Bering Sea Sinkings Cases
Over his 30 year career as a maritime lawyer, James Beard has gained extensive experience litigating disasters involving the sinking of commercial fishing vessels in the Bering Sea. He has recovered millions of dollars in compensation for the wives, children and parents of crewmen who have lost their lives doing the most dangerous job in the world, working as a commercial fisherman. Some of Beard’s most notable Alaska fishing boat sinking cases are described below.
The Alaska crab fishing vessel Vestfjord sank in January of 1989, resulting in the deaths of all six crewmen. The 97 foot Vestfjord was loaded with crab pots and was doomed when it became caught in one of worse ice storms. A brief Mayday message was received from the vessel indicating the vessel had taken on a list and was sinking under severe icing conditions. Weather data indicated that there were 30 foot seas and 60 mile per hour winds in the area at the time of the vessel sinking. Investigation into the cause of the sinking center around the weather conditions and the stability letter which calculated the number of pots that the vessel could safely carry under icing conditions. Questions were also raised about the weather forecasts and the failure of the vessel to take proper precautions to avoid severe weather conditions. Beard represented the families of crewmen Kevin Melnick and Doug Harding and was lead counsel in investigating the claims of the deceased crewmen. The vessel owners filed a petition in U.S. District Court in Seattle to attempt to limit their liability to just a few thousand dollars. The case settled favorably to the families prior to trial.
Nine crewmen were lost in 1990 when the factory trawler Aleutian Enterprise sank in the Bering Sea. An extensive casualty investigation into the cause of the vessel sinking was conducted by the United States Coast Guard and the National Transportation Board. The evidence revealed that the vessel’s freezer holds were full of product to near capacity when a large cod end, filled to near capacity, was pulled aboard the vessel. The fish spilled onto the deck, causing a list to the port. The vessel began taking on water through overboard discharge chutes in the vessel’s fish processing factory. Progressive down flooding led to the vessel quickly capsizing and sinking with many of the crewmen trapped below decks. The investigation revealed that the crew had received virtually no safety training in abandon ship procedures. No drills had been conducted in donning survival suits, and the survival suits were located in areas difficult to access in an emergency situation. The vessel was very poorly maintained. Remarkably, 22 crewmen were rescued from the water and saved by nearby vessels. Shortly following the accident, the vessel owners filed a petition for limitation of liability in U.S. District Court in Seattle, claiming their vessel was seaworthy and denying negligence in the cause of the sinking. Beard represented three of the crewmen who lost their lives in the sinking; the claims were settled prior to trial.
The 92 foot factory trawler Arctic Rose sank in the Bering Sea on April 2, 2001, with the loss of all 15 crewmen. An epirb signal alerted the Coast Guard that the Arctic Rose was in trouble, but an extensive search turned up only the captain’s body. The vessel’s stability report required that the weathertight door leading from the processing area to the back deck be kept closed at all times. Utilizing remote underwater vehicles, the Coast Guard was able to locate and film the Arctic Rose on the ocean floor some 430 feet below the ocean surface. The ROV footage showed the door leading to the aft deck was open. The investigation also focused on structural changes that were made to the Arctic Rose. Good safety practice requires that substantial changes to a vessel’s design and construction require that a new stability analysis and tests be performed on the vessel. Further questions were raised about the level of the crew’s safety training in abandon ship and survival procedures. Beard and the lawyers in his firm were honored to represent the families of six deceased Arctic Rose crewmen.
The Alaska fish processing vessel Alaska Ranger sank in March of 2008 in the Bering sea. The 190 foot vessel was owned and operated by the Fishing Company of Alaska. 42 crewmen survived the sinking, and five crewmen died. Investigation into the cause of the sinking revealed that the vessel began flooding in the vessel’s engine room. The crew was unable to control the progressive flooding, and the vessel began listing to the starboard. Expert investigators testified that the likely cause of the Alaska Ranger’s sinking was due to failure of the hull plating in the stern of the vessel. The stern kort nozzles were not installed according to the engineer and architect’s recommendations. During litigation, Beard argued that the kort nozzles installation caused improper stress on the vessel’s hull, leading to the hull’s failure.
The crew of the Alaska Ranger had time to gather and don survival suits and launch survival craft before abandoning the ship in the middle the pitch black night. 22 of the crewmen were able to get into the vessel’s life raft, but 25 others battled for their lives for over five hours in the freezing cold waters of the Bering Sea. The key to surviving the sinking was the crew’s ability to don survival suits, but most of the crewmen were on the verge of death at the time they were rescued. Beard and his firm represented the wife and children of deceased crewman Byron Carrillo, as well as many of the surviving crewmen.
In the October 2008 sinking of the Katmai, seven crewmen lost their lives, and four crewmen survived. The investigation into the sinking of the Katmai focused on the flooding of the vessel’s lazarette. Flooding of spaces designed to be watertight can cause fishing vessels to lose stability and capsize in even moderate seas. Maritime experts concluded that the Katmai was loaded with frozen fish product to twice the amount recommended in the Katmai’s stability report. Beard brought a maritime wrongful death action for the minor daughter of crewman Glenn Harper, who needlessly and tragically lost his life in the sinking of the Katmai.
Other notable Alaska fishing vessel sinking cases Beard has litigated include the fire and explosion aboard the Galaxy, and the sinking of the Amber Dawn and the Pacesetter.