By Jack Stewardson
The Standard-Times

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The families of two fishermen lost in the sinking of the Cape Fear three years ago are seeking to broaden the liability for the deaths by bringing lawsuits against a Marblehead marine architectural firm involved in a project to lengthen the vessel in 1996.

Susan Allen and Dennis Martin, respective administrators for the estates of Stephen Reeves, 28, of New Bedford, and Paul Martin, 35, of Fairhaven, this week separately filed suits against Propulsion Data Services Inc., claiming the firm failed to provide proper stability data for the 112-foot ocean quahog vessel and generally overstated its safe operating limits.

When reached at his Marblehead office, John Koopman, president of Propulsion Data Service, said he has been apprised of the suit but hasn’t seen a copy yet.

“I really don’t have a reaction at this point,” he said. “I’ll have to see what it entails.”

The lawsuit, filed in Essex County Superior Courts, seeks a jury trial and is being brought under the Massachusetts Wrongful Death Act and general maritime law. There are no dollar figures specified in the suits.

Carolyn May Latti, a Boston attorney representing the families, said that while the $1.12 million is listed on the cover sheets in the court documents, as lost and anticipated lost wages for each fishermen. Those figures don’t include compensation for such things as loss of companionship, loss of nurturing, or punitive damages that will be argued in the state court on behalf of the families.

The Cape Fear went down off Cuttyhunk en route to New Bedford on the evening of Jan. 9, 1999, when it took on water from the stern and capsized. Three crew members, skipper Steven Novack, mate James Haley Jr., and deckhand Joseph Lemieux Jr., were rescued from the water by another fishing vessel, the Misty Dawn.

Mr. Martin’s body was found a day later floating off Gooseberry Neck in Westport, while Mr. Reeves has not been recovered.

The families of the two fishermen have previously brought $12 million in lawsuits in U.S. District Court against the Cape Fear Inc., and its president, Warren Alexander.

Federal Judge Robert E. Keeton earlier this month found the Cape Fear was unseaworthy and denied a petition to limit the liability of its owners. A date is expected to be set next month for a jury trial to determine damages.

The latest lawsuits maintain that Data Propulsion Services, hired to preform stability calculations in 1996 when Mr. Alexander had the Cape Fear lengthened 20-feet, “incorrectly set forth the stability, seakeeping and load-carrying capacity” of the Cape Fear and “generally overstated the vessel’s safe operating limits.”

In Coast Guard hearings following the tragedy, considerable times was spent discussing rear hatch covers aboard the Cape Fear that were left partially opened and susceptible to flooding and of 130 clam cages the vessel carried, 10 more than the number used in stability book calculations.

The Coast Guard investigation concluded that the Cape Fear sank as a result of down-flooding through clam tank hatch covers that were not weathertight. It also said the vessel was not being operated in accordance with its stability book, and that the crew did not conduct regular monthly safety drills called for in Coast Guard regulations.