Coast Guard Reminds Washington Vessel Operators to Maintain a Proper Lookout

The 13th Coast Guard District posted a bulletin from Seattle to remind vessel operators to maintain a proper lookout while crossing Washington waters. The reminder was issued because vessel operators, including commercial fishermen, sometimes allow their vessels to drift at night in open water while the crew sleeps. This is a violation of a core seamanship law, or "Rule 5" of the International Regulations for Prevention of Collisions at Sea (COLREGS). This rule requires all vessels to maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing at all times. If there is other equipment available, like a radar, it must be used in addition to a proper lookout.

The Coast Guard notice also reminds readers that the vessel captain has the responsibility to maintain adequate watch-keeping and manning. Failure to do so can result in a maximum fine issued by the Coast Guard of $6500.00 per violation. Failure to keep a proper watch may result in a collision with another vessel that leads to costly damages, as illustrated by the Fourth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals Case, Yarmouth Sea Products, Ltd. v. Scully, 131 F.3d 389, 1998 A.M.C. 835 (4th Cir. 1997).

In this case, the operator of a sailboat collided with a commercial fishing vessel. The sailboat operator was sailing alone. He acknowledged that he may have dozed off while at the cockpit. The sailboat was only equipped with one radar that was not functioning due to a failed electric generator. The VHF (very high frequency) radios and top mast navigations lights were not functioning. The sail boat was sailing at 5-8 knots when it hit the commercial fishing vessel, which was drifting at 1-1.5 knots. The fishing vessel was properly manned with a lookout and operating with functioning radios and navigation lights, but was unable to avoid the collision.

The appellate court agreed with the lower court's assessment that the sailboat operator was entirely at fault. The lower court assessed that he failed to maintain a proper lookout by sight, hearing or radar, and to display navigation lights while his boat was moving. All of these failures led to the collision, and he bore the responsibility of the damages sustained by the commercial fishing vessel. The sailboat operator appealed, challenging the calculation of the damages awarded to the fishing vessel and its crew. The lower court awarded $78,616 for the fishing vessel's lost catch, loss of supplies, loss of brokerage, hull damage, and pre-judgment interest. The sail boat owner contended that the damages were too speculative to support the award of damages as a matter of law. The appellate court determined that damage to a fishing vessel at sea during a catch had to be calculated with "reasonable certainty".

The fishing vessel owners asked the court to calculate damages based on the price of the catches made on the same vessel before and after the collision. The lower court, however, looked at the price of the catches of a similar fishing vessel owned by the same company and made an award that reflected that boat's catches. The appellate court ruled the lower court's award and reasoning did not quite meet the standard of "reasonable certainty", and remanded the case for further consideration on the issue of damages, leaving much to the lower court's discretion.

The sailboat operator also challenged the award of damages to the fishermen onboard who had a contract to share a percentage of the catch's profits, minus certain expenses for the boat's operation. The Court of Appeals affirmed the award to the fishermen, stating that fishermen are allowed to recover for the tortious acts of third persons that interfere with their ability to maintain their livelihood.

The commercial fishing vessel accident attorneys at Merriam and Webb know the challenges of commercial fishing and life at sea. If you or your vessel has been harmed due to another's negligence, contact one of our experienced attorneys at 877.800.1007 for a free consultation today.

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