(photograph courtesy of the United States Coast Guard)
Early Sunday morning, the Coast Guard called off the search for the skipper of the WHITE SWAN III, a 32-foot fishing vessel that sank about 35 miles offshore of Florence, Oregon. One other crewmember was rescued by the Coast Guard but was unresponsive and later pronounced dead. The cause of the sinking remains under investigation.
The Coast Guard first received a distress call from the vessel shortly after midnight on Saturday, March 26. The WHITE SWAN’s master reported that the vessel was taking on water and sinking in the northern section of the Heceta Banks fishery. Upon receiving the mayday call, the Coast Guard activated a rescue operation and deployed a 47-foot motor lifeboat crew from Coast Guard Station Siuslaw River. Several Coast Guard aircraft, additional motor lifeboat crews, and the Coast Guard Cutter Orcas joined the search shortly thereafter.
The first Coast Guard asset on scene, a helicopter responding from Air Facility Newport, discovered a debris field and life raft at the vessel’s last known location. Though responders eventually found the unresponsive crewmember, several aircraft had to return to base early due to heavy fog and low visibility. Coast Guard vessels, including the Cutter Orcas, continued searching a 232-square mile area for more than 24 hours after the initial mayday. With no sign of the WHITE SWAN’s captain, the Coast Guard terminated the search early Sunday.
As noted, the cause of the sinking remains unknown. In general, vessel sinkings can be caused by a number of different issues. These can include adverse weather or sea conditions, capsizing (either due to weather, stability issues, or other causes), hull breaches from improper maintenance, groundings or collisions, or explosions and fires. Vessel sinkings pose an immediate threat to the health and safety of the crew, particularly during winter or in poor weather.
If a vessel sinking is caused by negligence or a vessel’s unseaworthy condition, then the vessel owner, the vessel employer, or a third party who is responsible for the sinking may be liable for the injury or death of the seamen or mariners onboard.
If the vessel’s employer is responsible for the sinking, then liability will typically be determined under the Jones Act, 46 U.S. Code section 30104 (note that the liability of a third party may be determined under general maritime law, a separate but related body of law from the Jones Act). Proving that a vessel employer is liable for injury to a seafarer under the Jones Act requires showing four elements:
First, the injured seaman must show that the vessel employer owed a duty of care to the seaman related to the cause of the sinking or accident. For example, the vessel owner must properly train the crew, avoid sending the vessel out in unreasonably dangerous conditions, and ensure that the vessel is maintained and that all equipment is operational,.
Second, the seafarer must demonstrate that the employer breached or violated one or more duties.
Third, the seaman must to show that the employers breach of a duty caused the seaman’s injuries. Of note, the causation standard under the Jones Act is significantly lighter than in typical negligence lawsuits. The “slight” or “featherweight” causation standard under the Jones Act only requires that the seaman show that the vessel employer’s negligence was remotely responsible for the seaman’s injury. This contrasts with the “proximate cause” standard in non-Jones Act lawsuits, which requires showing that an event or occurrence is sufficiently related to a claimant’s injury such that the law deems the event to be the cause of the injury.
Fourth and finally, the seaman must prove that he or she suffered damages, meaning actual harm. This could be physical harm, psychological trauma, lost income, lost future earning capacity, or a number of other potential damages.
If you have questions about Jones Act lawsuits or maritime claims, please reach out to the maritime attorneys at Trueb & Beard LLC for a free consultation. With attorneys licensed in Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, the attorneys at Trueb & Beard can help you advocate for your rights and interests.