SEATTLE — Owners of a sunken fishing boat have asked a federal judge to virtually remove them from liability in the death of the 15-member crew, the worst U.S. commercial fishing disaster in 50 years.
The lawsuit filed by Arctic Sole Seafoods Inc. of Lynnwood is the latest legal maneuver since the Arctic Rose, a 92-foot factory trawler, went down April 2 in the Bering Sea.
Under a 150-year-old maritime law cited in the case, the owners’ liability could be limited to the value of the ship after it sank — essentially zero, because the vessel remains on the ocean floor, 400 feet below the surface in the Zemchung Flats.
The ship, equipped to catch flathead sole, sank suddenly without any word of distress while most of the crew members were asleep. Only the body of the skipper, David E. Rundall, clad in a flooded survival suit, was recovered.
Lawyers for crew members’ families said they were not surprised by the latest development.
David Bratz, the attorney who filed the lawsuit for the company, said it was unlikely to go to trial before the families’ claims are settled. He said the purpose was to bring all claims into a single forum for a determination of liability.
"It is still my intention to settle these claims amicably," Bratz said.
Joseph Stacey, whose law firm represents families of six crew members, was skeptical.
"If they’re so unlikely to prevail, then why did they file?" Stacy said. "It’s because they want to gain the upper hand on the families."
Four lawsuits have been filed by crew members’ families, three in Alaska state courts and one in King County Superior Court in Seattle. Several other families have hired lawyers without suing.
Bratz said he went to federal court, essentially freezing the state court lawsuits, to meet a six-month deadline for action under the liability statute.
He said he and the owner’s insurance adjuster, the Polaris Group, had hoped to settle with the families before the deadline but "it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen."
The lawsuit cites the Liability Limitation Act, adopted in 1851.
In a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1989, Judge Alex Kozinski wrote that it "provides ship owners a generous measure of protection not available to any other enterprise in our society."
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