Judge: Cape Fear Wasn’t Seaworthy
Jury Will Decide Monetary Damages
By David Kibbe
The Standard-Times

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BOSTON – A federal judge ruled yesterday that, because it was overloaded with clam cages in bad weather, the Cape Fear was not seaworthy when it sank off Cuttyhunk three years ago, taking the lives of two local fishermen.

The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Keeton means a jury will be asked to decide monetary damages against Warren Alexander, the owner of the Cape Fear, later this year.

The families of two fishermen, Paul Martin, 35, of Fairhaven, and Steven Reeves, 28, of New Bedford, have filed a $12 million lawsuit against Mr. Alexander.

The families viewed the decision as vindication. “It’s a long haul,” said Mr. Martin’s sister, Donna Reed. “We know he’s still with us in our hearts. I feel his presence in our lives still. I’m happy, and he would be, too.”

The jury will base damages on pain and suffering and how much financial support the two men would have provided to their families.

In a 125-page decision, Judge Keeton wrote that the ship was “substantially overloaded with clams in cages, a practice that had become common on the Cape Fear. A significant portion of the cages of the clams were stacked on deck so as to place the center of gravity of the loaded vessel higher than was safe.”

“At the time, the sea had already become rough in weather that predictably would produce rougher seas en route to port. These conditions made it highly likely that the Cape Fear would sink and that before settling to the bottom it would roll, creating a very high risk not only of loss of the vessel and cargo but as well loss of life of one or more persons among the captain and crew.”

Judge Keeton found several other factors “contributed to the likelihood of disaster,” including an opening in the aft hold cover and problems with safety gear aboard the vessel.

Mr. Alexander, of Warren, R.I., could appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals. He could not be reached for comment yesterday, and his lawyer, Thomas Clinton, did not return a phone call.

During the hearings last year, Mr. Alexander testified that the Cape Fear had passed insurance and safety inspections and the crew did not have any complaints about the ship.

His lawyers told the judge the ship went down because the crew left a hatch open and the vessel downflooded.

The Cape Fear was steaming home to New Bedford on Jan. 8, 1999, when it took on water from the stern, capsized and sunk.

The vessel went down three miles off Cuttyhunk.

It was steaming in 6-to-8 foot seas and a 20-to-30 knot wind.

It was carrying 90 cages below deck and 40 on deck.

The vessel’s stability manual called for 120 cages, about 10 less than it was carrying.

Each cage weighed about 3,400 pounds.

Three of the five crew members – Skipper Steven Novack and mate James Haley Jr., both of Virginia, and deckhand Joseph Lemieux of Fairhaven – were rescued from the icy waters by another ocean quahogger, the Misty Dawn.

Mr. Martin’s body was found off Goosebury Neck in Westport the next day. Mr. Reeves was lost at sea.

Earlier this year, a Coast Guard investigation concluded that the Cape Fear sank as a result of down-flooding through clam tank hatch covers that were not weathertight.

The Coast Guard said the vessel was not being operated in accordance with its stability book, and the crew did not undergo monthly safety drills, among other problems.

Mr. Martin and Mr. Reeves were not able to fully don survival suits. The Coast Guard report said it was inconclusive whether an inoperative zipper made it impossible for the men to don suits.

Mr. Martin and Mr. Reeves died of drowning and hypothermia, the Coast Guard said.

For the families, yesterday’s court ruling “confirms what they have felt all along,” said one of their lawyers, Carolyn May Latti of Boston.

“All that testimony is especially hard on the families, because they have to keep going through it,” she said.

Judge Keeton held hearings on the case in July, September and November before issuing his decision.

The judge may set a date for a jury trial to determine damages during a conference on Feb. 5.

He will assess whether the Cape Fear’s insurance policy is enough to pay the amount of damages the families will be seeking.