Victims’ families win suit against Cape Fear owner
By Curt Brown and David Kibbe The Standard-Times March 11, 2004

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BOSTON – A U.S. District Court jury yesterday found the owner of the Cape Fear, which sank off Cuttyhunk in 1999, negligent in the deaths of two crew members and awarded their families $800,000 in damages.

A 12-person jury awarded the family of Steven M. Reeves $600,000 for pain and suffering and the family of Paul F. Martin $200,000.

Jurors deliberated about six hours before returning the verdict, following a seven-day trial before Judge George A. O’Toole Jr.

The award for the Reeves family was higher because there was evidence at the trial the he was alive for 15 to 20 minutes before drowning, based on the testimony of other crew members.

Mr. Martin, 35, of Fairhaven and Mr. Reeves, 28, of New Bedford died when the 112-foot quahogger, Cape Fear, overloaded with sea clams in cages, took on water from the stern, capsized and sunk on Jan. 8, 1999, 3 miles off Cuttyhunk.

The Cape Fear was steaming home to New Bedford when the incident happened.

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 Gooseberry Neck in Westport the next day. Mr. Reeves was lost at sea.

Donna Reed of Fairhaven, Mr. Martin’s sister, said her family is pleased with the verdict and members feel it will bring them closure.

“It’s over and we’re glad and we can put this behind us,” she said last night in an interview.

Jurors found the negligence by the Cape Fear to be a cause of death for both men. They also determined the vessel was unseaworthy for reasons in addition to being overloaded, and this factor contributed to their deaths.

The jury found that both victims were negligent and their negligence was a contributing cause of their death.

However, jurors found the two men’s contributory negligence was only 10 percent and Cape Fear’s negligence was 90 percent.

Carolyn Latti, counsel for the victims’ families, explained the actual award will climb to $1 million to $1.5 million when pre-judgment interest and loss of support of Mr. Reeves’ young son is figured into the total.

Ms. Latti called it a large verdict for pain and suffering and was confident it would hold up if Cape Fear Inc. decided to appeal.

“This verdict is very unique and a very strong verdict,” Ms. Latti said. “It’s a large verdict for pain and suffering.”

Cape Fear’s lawyer, Thomas Muzyka of Boston, couldn’t be reached for comment.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Keeton cleared the way for the families to seek monetary damages against Warren Alexander, the owner of the Cape Fear, in January 2002.

Judge Keeton ruled the Cape Fear was unseaworthy because it was overloaded with clam cages in bad weather.

The U.S. Coast Guard had earlier concluded the Cape Fear sank as a result of down-flooding through clam tank hatch covers that weren’t weathertight.

The Coast Guard added that the vessel wasn’t being operated in accordance with its stability book, and the crew didn’t undergo monthly safety drills, among other problems.

Mr. Martin and Mr. Reeves weren’t able to fully don survival suits, and the Coast Guard report said it was inconclusive whether an inoperative zipper made it impossible for the men to don the suits.