Injured Alaskan Crewman Defeats Owner’s Limited Liability Claim-In the Matter of the Complaint of Leo, LLC et al. v. Flora

Under maritime law, vessel owners facing liability for an injured crewman can petition the court to limit their liability to the value of the vessel and pending freight. They make the request pursuant to the Limitation of Shipowner’s Liability Act (Act), 46 U.S.C. §30501. In order to limit its liability, the ship owner must show, by a preponderance of the evidence, the negligent acts or unseaworthy conditions that caused the crewman’s injury were not within their privity or knowledge. The owners of a fish tender in Alaska tried to limit their liability after a fisherman was injured by a broken crane hook. A federal court in Washington dismissed the owner’s petition.

Matthew Flora, 35, worked as a seaman on moving vessel LEO, which was owned by Coastal Villages Seafoods, LLC and other owners (petitioners). LEO is an ex-U.S. military landing and recovery craft modified to include two “knuckle” cranes installed in May 2007. The crane hooks were designed to have safety latches to keep heavy loads on the crane hook. LEO’s port side crane hook did not have a safety latch.

On June 12, 2009, LEO was being used as a fish tender vessel off the western coast of Alaska. On the first day of the voyage, within 3 miles of Alaska’s shore, LEO’s crew lowered the crane, with a brailer and scale, to a halibut catcher vessel, which loaded the fish to “lift” back to LEO. LEO’s crew would then ice the fish in totes before transporting them to shore for processing. As LEO’s crew loaded the halibut onto the vessel, the brailer and scale popped out of the crane hook. The scale struck Flora, who suffered a fractured skull and permanent brain injury. Flora sued petitioners under the Jones Act, claiming their negligence caused his injuries. Petitioners requested to limit their liability under the Act.

In this case, Flora sustained his burden of proving negligence. The petitioners, however, could not limit their liability because they knew of LEO’s unseaworthiness and were in privity with the vessel’s negligent manager. LEO was not seaworthy because its crane hook, without a safety clasp, was not reasonably fit for its intended purpose. LEO’s captain admitted he knew the crane lacked a safety latch when the vessel sailed from Seward, Alaska. The vessel manager likewise knew the hook was defective, but never took effective measures to ensure the hook was repaired. His actions and omissions constitute negligence and were the cause of Flora’s injuries. Petitioner’s knowledge of LEO’s unseaworthy condition and their negligent failure to remedy the defective equipment undermines their claim that they lacked “privity or knowledge” of the cause of Flora’s injury. Accordingly, the ship owners could not limit their liability under the Act. Their petition for limitation of liability was dismissed with prejudice.

If you have suffered a shipboard injury, the experienced Washington maritime injury attorneys of BoatLaw, LLP can help. We have successfully handled hundreds of cases of shipboard injury and death. We welcome your inquiries and provide initial consultations without charge. For legal assistance, call 1-800-262-8529 or contact us online.

Web Resources:

In the Matter of the Complaint of Leo, LLC et al. v. Flora, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington at Seattle

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