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Commercial Fishing and Shipping Injuries on the Columbia River

The Columbia River is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest. It flows south from British Columbia through Washington state and then turns west to form the border between Washington and Oregon. Snake River is its biggest tributary. The river system is used for both commercial fishing and shipping, and important ports located on the Columbia River include Portland, Astoria, Chinook, Kalama, and Longview.

Commercial fishing has long been a part of the history of the Columbia River since Robert Gray first navigated it in 1792. Salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, and shad are all commercially fished in the river, among others. In addition to commercial fishing, the Columbia Snake River system is the west coast’s top wheat, wood, mineral, and automobile export gateway. More than 50 million tons of cargo worth at least $21 billion move through the river system each year.

Working on the Columbia River as a seaman is a dangerous job. Unlike most workers, seamen are not entitled to workers’ compensation. Instead, the law offers three primary avenues of legal recovery for injured seaman. These are 1) maintenance and cure, 2) the doctrine of unseaworthiness, and 3) the Jones Act.

Maintenance and cure benefits are available to all seamen injured while working in the service of a vessel. Maintenance is compensation for daily living expenses. Typically, your employer’s insurer pays maintenance weekly or bi-weekly. Cure is compensation for all reasonable and necessary medical expenses. Your employer must pay these benefits throughout your recovery regardless of who was the cause of the injury. If your employer unreasonably and intentionally fails to pay maintenance and cure, you may be entitled to attorney’s fees and punitive damages.

Separate from maintenance and cure, injured seamen can recover under the doctrine of unseaworthiness if an unseaworthy condition caused their injury. A vessel is seaworthy if the ship as a whole, including all equipment and crew, is reasonably fit for its intended use. The owner has an absolute duty to provide a seaworthy vessel, meaning that there does not need to be a finding of negligence for the vessel owner to be liable for any damages.

The Jones Act, enacted by Congress in 1920, allows injured seamen to bring legal actions against their employer if the employer’s negligence was a cause of their injury. There is a very low burden of causation under the Jones Act. The plaintiff only needs to prove that the employer’s negligence played any part—no matter how small—in the injury. Unlike claims under maintenance and cure and the doctrine of unseaworthiness, plaintiffs are entitled to jury trials if the action is brought under the Jones Act.

Kraft Davies, PLLC is a nationally recognized leader in maritime personal injury law. Kraft Davies has significant experience representing Columbia River seamen against vessel owners, maritime employers, and maritime insurance companies. If you or a loved one were injured in a commercial fishing or shipping accident, contact the attorneys at Kraft Davies today at 206.624.8844 or through this website.