Disabled Fishing Vessel Assisted Off the Coast of Copalis Beach, Washington

Recently, a 75 foot commercial fishing vessel was successfully towed to safety by two 47 foot Motor Life Boats from two different Coast Guard Stations. The fishing vessel had a jammed rudder and was adrift 10 miles off the Washington coast. This was a fortuitous rescue with no injuries reported, considering the dangers fishermen face while at sea.

Fishing vessels require a lot of diligence from the owners of the ship to maintain a seaworthy vessel and from the fishermen to properly follow procedures for maintaining the ship and looking out for other dangers at sea. If injury or illness occur during the voyage, then a seaman can recover damages to compensate for the loss of wages and other monies spent as a result of the injury.

Maintenance is the term applied for the money paid to the injured fisherman during a period of recovery until maximum medical improvement is reached. Maintenance has historically included unearned wages that would have been paid at the end of the voyage or contract. Cure is the payment for medical expenses including doctor's visits, medical equipment, testing, and transportation for medical appointments.

Unearned wages can encompass many different types of wages a fisherman would have earned while on the voyage. Maritime law cases have considered many different types of wages as "unearned wages", including overtime pay and tips. Employment contracts, however, may limit the daily allowance provided for maintenance. While shipowners may be able to limit the amount of maintenance through the employment contract, they cannot completely eradicate the long-held maritime concept of compensation while ill or injured.

While it may be extremely difficult to remove maintenance, shipowners can manipulate employment contracts and compensation in other ways. A 2009 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, Day v. American Seafoods Co., LLC, shows how a court reviews employment agreements. In this case a seaman was limited to the unearned wages during the voyage. The court assessed the federal statute, 46 U.S.C. Sec. 10601, which requires employment contracts to specify the period of the employment and the effectiveness of the contract. Because the language in the contract limited length of the contract to one voyage, the Court of Appeals elected to limit the unearned wages to this time period. The court did note that a contract may be contested if the terms are ambiguous or if extrinsic evidence is available to show the terms of the contract are void.

The experienced Washington maritime law attorneys, Gordon Webb and John Merriam, have a combined 50 years of experience practicing maritime law. They have reviewed and argued against unfair employment agreements when compensation falls short of what a client needs. If you are a seafarer or fisherman who hasn't been duly compensated, and would like to speak with one of our attorneys, contact one of our Washington locations at 877.800.1007 for a free, confidential consultation today.

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