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Federal Jury Finds Port of Bellingham Negligent For Collapse of Gangway; Awards Injured Ferry Worker $16 Million In Damages

APRIL 1, 2016

A Seattle Federal Court Jury has awarded an Alaska Ferry worker and her husband 16 million dollars in total compensatory damages for injuries she suffered when a gangway she was working upon collapsed at the Port of Bellingham.  Shannon Adamson, a Mate aboard an Alaska Ferry, was injured in an 18 foot fall in November of 2012 when a large gangway she was standing on, while lowering the gangway for passengers to board the ferry, suddenly collapsed.  Experts in engineering safety determined that critical safety controls for the gangway had not been installed, allowing potentially lethal slack to develop in the cables used to raise and lower the ramp.  Following a two week trial, the jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Adamson and her husband Nicholas.

The passenger gangway, which was owned by the Port and being leased by the Alaska Ferry system, had previous problems and was involved in a near collapse in 2008. Following the first gangway failure, engineers working for the Port of Bellingham recommended that a safety “limit switch” be installed, which would have prevented the operation of the controls in such a manner that the pins used to lock the gangway into position could not be removed if cables used to lower and raise the gangway had been previously  slacked.  The Port of Bellingham failed to install the recommended safety limit switch which would have cost just a few dollars to install.

At trial, the Port of Bellingham argued that the Alaska State Ferry system was responsible for making repairs to the gangway and negligent for not training Adamson in how to safely operate the gangway’s controls. Adamson’s lawyers, James Jacobsen and Joseph Stacey, argued it was the Port of Bellingham’s contractual obligation under the lease to repair and maintain the gangway.  Adamson’s lawyers contended the Port failed to give proper notice to the State of Alaska or to Adamson about the known danger that the gangway could suddenly and unexpectedly collapse.

Following the two week trial, the Jury rejected the Port of Bellingham’s arguments, finding the Port 100% at fault for Adamson’s injuries and determining that Adamson was not negligent, in any manner, in causing the gangway’s failure.

Adamson suffered extensive orthopedic injuries as a result of the fall. Adamson’s bones could not absorb the force of the 18 foot free fall of the gangway.  Her pelvis and sacrum were shattered and broken in multiple places, requiring extensive reconstructive surgery.  She suffered fractures in her low back and had loss of sensation in her lower right leg. Her ankle, wrist and ribs were broken. Adamson was knocked unconscious and doctors testified she had suffered a traumatic brain injury in addition to her many orthopedic injuries.

Over a two year period of rehabilitation, Adamson battled through pain to learn to walk again. She has slowly progressed to the use of a cane. She will continue to suffer from chronic pain and a marked limp the remainder of her life. The jury awarded $ 9,000,000 in damages for past and future pain and suffering.  Adamson’s husband Nick was awarded $2.25 million for past and future loss of consortium compensatory damages.

Adamson, who was just 30 years old at the time of her injury, was on the fast track to becoming one of the first female captains in the Alaska Marine Highway System. At the time of her injury, Adamson was making $125,000 a year, with the prospect of increased wages and benefits upon advancement to Captain. She was a graduate of the California Maritime Academy.  Because of her injuries, Adamson’s medical experts and treating doctors testified she cannot return to work as officer aboard a ship.  She is limited to part time, light to medium work.  She is currently working part time for the Master Mate’s and Pilots Union.   The economist for Adamson calculated her past and future economic losses to be $4,235,000 over her work life expectancy.

Adamson’s lawyers, Jacobsen and Stacey, are partners in the Seattle Maritime Law firm of Beard Stacey & Jacobsen, PLLC.   Beard Stacey & Jacobsen’s practice focuses on injuries for maritime workers such as Adamson.  The firm has tried and settled many multi-million dollar cases involving Jones Act seamen and commercial fishermen.  The Adamson case involved a complex legal question because, even though Adamson was a Jones Act seaman, the State of Alaska was immune from a direct lawsuit by Adamson.  Although Adamson could not sue the State of Alaska, the Port of Bellingham was allowed to argue that Adamson’s damages had to be reduced for the State of Alaska’s negligence.   Stacey and Jacobsen successfully established to the jury that the State of Alaska was not negligent and that the Port of Bellingham had to bear the complete responsibility for Adamson’s injuries.   The jury carefully reviewed the evidence, and justice was done for Adamson and her husband.

In prior proceedings, the Port of Bellingham’s claims against the State of Alaska were dismissed in Whatcom County Superior Court. The Port of Bellingham appealed that decision and their appeal was rejected by the Washington State Court of Appeals   Despite a quick and decisive verdict from the Jury, the Port of Bellingham has not formally indicated whether or not they will appeal the 16 million dollar verdict.

Federal District Court Judge Marsha Pechman presided over the case; Shannon Adamson and Nicholas Adamson, husband and wife, vs. Port of Bellingham, a Washington Municipal Corporation, Defendant.  United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, Case No. C14-1804 MJP.