Monday, November 14, 2005

Court Upholds "The Sailor" Verdict

A federal appeals court upheld a $200,000 judgment against the city of Rockland for liability stemming from the sinking of a scalloping vessel at the municipal fish pier in 2002. The Sailor, a 72-foot scallop dragger owned by Owls Head fisherman Gary Hatch, sank at the fish pier in February 2002 after an exposed bolt on the pier opened a hole in the wooden vessel's hull. Hatch sued the city for failing to properly maintain the pier, and won a $202,000 award from a federal jury in Portland in September 2004. The damages were calculated on the fair market value of the vessel, plus interest, according to court records.
The Sailor sank at the Rockland Municipal Fish Pier in February 2002, after an exposed bolt tore an opening in its hull. A federal appeals court on Nov. 4 upheld a $200,000 judgment against the city for liability in the sinking.
A three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals, First Circuit, in Washington, D.C. ruled Nov. 4 on the city's appeal for a new trial and reconsideration of the damages awarded to Hatch. The city lost on both counts. "I'm terribly disappointed," Rockland City Manager Tom Hall said. He described the decision as a miscarriage of justice, and said the matter is now in the hands of the city's insurance company for continued action. The remaining step for appeal of the Nov. 4 decision would be the U.S. Supreme Court. "We're pleased that after about three years we think we have a final decision," said Clayton Howard, the Damariscotta attorney representing Hatch. "The city of Rockland neglected its duties as a wharfinger. If someone were sleeping on the boat that night, we would be talking about a loss of life, not just a loss of property." In a 14-page ruling, the judges denied the city's argument for limiting its liability, and gave great weight to the jury's reasoning and verdict. In the case of determining liability, the jury was free to weigh the evidence as long as its verdict was not irrational. As for the damages, the city contested Hatch's testimony about the value of the Sailor, given his financial interest in the outcome. The jury declared the vessel's value at $169,000, with $202,000 as the final damages once interest was calculated. Hatch, according to court records, said his vessel (which he purchased for $35,000 and then refit) was worth between $166,000 and $189,000. Experts testifying for the city gave estimates of much less, between $80,000 and $100,000. The judges said the jury's determination of $169,000, although seemingly generous, was perfectly in its purview to declare. "It appears that the jury was generous in accepting Hatch's estimate over and above the more modest figure offered by Rockland's expert.... Yet this does not show that the jury acted irrationally," they wrote.In sum, the panel said there was little compelling evidence to overturn the jury verdict in Rockland's favor. "This is a close case for apportioning all fault to Rockland, and one's confidence in the result is not increased by the rather generous damages award," the judges wrote. "However, we put our faith in juries to resolve close cases, and although the appeal has been ably briefed, the jury verdict is not irrational." As for the Sailor, Howard said Hatch sold the vessel to another local fisherman, and while being towed in that fisherman's possession, the Sailor sank in the waters near Monroe Island, off Owls Head. And as for Hatch, Howard said his client still fishes locally in a steel-hulled boat.

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