U.S. Weather Agency Held Liable in Storm Deaths

U.S. Weather Agency Held Liable In Storm Deaths
By The Associated Press
The New York Times
December 22, 1984

BOSTON, Dec. 21 – A Federal district judge ruled today that the National Weather Service’s parent agency was liable for the death of three lobstermen lost at sea after forecasters failed to predict a storm 150 miles off the coast.

The judge, Joseph Tauro, said the agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, negligently failed for nearly three months to repair a broken weather buoy that could have helped provide an accurate forecast of the storm, which produced 60-foot waves and winds of 100 miles an hour.

“It’s very significant because it’s the first case that the United States was held responsible for basically an inaccurate forecast,” said Michael Latti, a Boston lawyer who represented the lobstermen’s relatives. Mr. Latti said previous court rulings found that the National Weather Service could not be held responsible for a faulty forecast. “But here Tauro says there’s an exception to that rule when you don’t maintain your equipment properly,” Mr. Latti said.

Judge Tauro, who presided over a weeklong nonjury trial, must hold a second trial to assess damages. He set Jan. 28 for a pretrial conference.

Don Witten, public affairs officer for the National Weather Service in Silver Spring, Md., said he did not know whether the Government would appeal.

The $3.2 million lawsuit was filed by relatives of three of the four lobstermen presumed drowned Nov. 22, 1980, a day after they set out in fair weather from Cape Cod for a week of fishing on Georges Bank.

According to testimony at the trial, they were taken by surprise by the storm. William Garnos, 30 years old, of Beverly; David Berry, 20, of Marblehead, and Robert Thayer, 22, of Hamilton, were lost when their boat, the Fairwind, capsized and sank. Another crew member, Ernest Hazard, 34, of Peabody, climbed onto a life raft and was rescued 48 hours later by the Coast Guard. Less than two hours after the Fairwind went down, Gary Brown, 25, of Plymouth, Mass., was swept overboard from his vessel, the SeaFever.

Good Weather Was Forecast

Relatives of Mr. Berry, Mr. Garnos and Mr. Brown said the men relied on a National Weather Service forecast calling for good weather when they set out from Hyannis on a 12-hour voyage to the fishing grounds. David Hutchinson, a Justice Department attorney who represented the weather service, said in court documents that the storm came up so suddenly it could not have been predicted at the time the men set out. He also said the National Weather Service provided forecasts as a public service and had no liability if they turned out to be wrong.

But in his 40-page opinion Judge Tauro said that once the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Federal agency responsible for weather forecasting, decided to provide forecasts for mariners, it had a duty to make sure they were correct.

The National Weather Service was unable to get a complete picture of the weather on Georges Bank because of malfunctioning wind sensors on a key weather buoy, the judge said. He added that even though the weather service was aware of the buoy’s importance, it “was permitted to remain in disrepair for two and a half months prior to this incident.” Judge Tauro also criticized the agency for failing to warn fishermen that its forecasts for Georges Bank were based on incomplete data.