Arctic Rose Sinking

Fifteen men lost their lives when the Arctic Rose sank in the Bering Sea in April of 2001. The sinking of the Arctic Rose was one of the worst commercial fishing accidents in the last 100 years, resulting in an extensive United States Coast Guard investigation into the vessel's loss. Weather at the time of the Arctic Rose sinking was reported to be 45 knot winds, with waves to 24 feet. No mayday message was issued by the vessel; a deployed EPIRB alerted the Coast of the vessel sinking.

The Arctic Rose was a 92-foot-long head and gut catcher processor. The vessel was originally built in 1988 in Biloxi, Mississippi, and outfitted for fishing shrimp. The Coast Guard was unable to discover any plans for the vessel, and it is unknown as to whether the vessel was originally constructed in accordance with any recognized standards.

The vessel was reportedly plagued with engine, shaft, and trawl equipment problems, forcing its owners to file for bankruptcy in 1995. The vessel remained tied up in Seattle for two years. Following a change in ownership, in 1999 the vessel underwent significant structural changes. There were a large number of weights added, removed, and relocated on the Arctic Rose, without new calculations being made to determine if the vessel was safe to operate. The owner did not contact a naval architect to evaluate the effects of the weight changes on the vessel stability.

The Coast Guard Investigation

The Coast Guard casualty investigation found that the Arctic Rose was not in compliance with operating instructions issued by the owner's naval architects. The Coast Guard located the Arctic Rose on the bottom of the ocean and deployed a remotely operated vehicle to videotape the wreckage. The videotape showed the aft starboard door in the processing deck to be open, and the guillotine closure for the starboard discharge chute to be partially open. The Coast Guard investigation concluded the processing space was not watertight, as required by the operating instructions.

Additionally, the Coast Guard found the vessel not to be loaded in accordance with the stability guidelines issued by the naval architects. The Coast Guard further found that the Arctic Rose was operating as a fish processing vessel, and was required to be load lined. This would have required the vessel to have a load line issued by a classification society, and have a survey or third party-issued Certificate of Compliance. According to the Coast Guard, head and gut vessels such as the Arctic Rose are not permitted to engage in fish processing operations without proper documentation and certification.

The Case Result

Maritime wrongful death suits were filed in United States District Court for the Western District of Washington for all 15 of the deceased crewmen. Stacey & Jacobsen, PLLC represented six of the deceased crewmen, and was appointed by the court to act as one of the lead legal counsel on the claims. The amount of the settlements for the deceased crewmen remains confidential. In the subsequent maritime wrongful death lawsuits filed for the crew of the Arctic Rose, their families claimed the owners of the Arctic Rose were negligent in making alterations and changes to the Arctic Rose without conducting a proper stability analysis.

The families further claimed the crew of the Arctic Rose was inexperienced and lacked proper training. Few of the crewmen had prior fishing experience, and had limited training on abandon ship and survival training. Notably, three of the crewmen were foreign nationals from Mexico, working under assumed names. Damages recovered for the deceased crewmen's families included damages for pre-death pain and suffering, loss of economic support, loss of care, nurture and guidance, and funeral and memorial expenses. Beneficiaries of the wrongful death and survival actions under federal maritime law included the spouses, children, parents, and dependent relatives of the deceased crewmen.

Safety Should Come First

Like the sinking of the Aleutian Enterprise in 1990, the sinking of the Arctic Rose emphasizes the importance of protecting against progressive down-flooding by keeping closed all doors and openings to compartments designed to be watertight. Furthermore, strict adherence to stability instructions and frequent consultation with qualified marine architects is necessary when making structural changes to fishing vessels. Tragedy can strike in moments if safety precautions are not followed on a vessel. According to calculations performed by the Coast Guard, the Arctic Rose would have sunk in less than two minutes, assuming progressive down-flooding through the improperly left open aft doorway to the processing area.

The sinkings of the Aleutian Enterprise and the Arctic Rose were a major factor in revisions and additions to the Fishing Vessel Safety Act, 46 CFR Section 28. The Fishing Vessel Safety Act requires stability analysis to be performed when major structural and weight changes are made that may impact a vessel's stability. The Fishing Vessel Safety Act also requires alarms to prevent against down-flooding of certain compartments and holds, and for check valves to be installed in vessel piping. Importantly, the Fishing Vessel Safety Act also requires that crew aboard commercial fishing vessels conduct regular safety training and drills, such as donning emersion suits and abandoning ship, and that vessels have basic safety equipment such as emersion suits, life rafts, and EPIRBs.

A complete copy of the Coast Guard Casualty Investigation into the sinking of the Arctic Rose is available upon request.

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