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Port of Bellingham to appeal $16 million awarded to ferry worker

The Alaska Marine Highway ferry Columbia arrives at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal on Aug. 13, 2010. The Port of Bellingham, which leases the ferry dock to the Alaska system, was ordered to pay $16 million to a Columbia ferry worker who was injured in 2012 when a dock ramp failed.
The Alaska Marine Highway ferry Columbia arrives at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal on Aug. 13, 2010. The Port of Bellingham, which leases the ferry dock to the Alaska system, was ordered to pay $16 million to a Columbia ferry worker who was injured in 2012 when a dock ramp failed. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

The Port of Bellingham will appeal the $16 million a federal jury awarded to an Alaska ferries worker who was injured while operating a ramp at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal.

A jury in U.S. District Court in Seattle awarded the sum to Shannon Adamson for loss of past and future income, pain and suffering, and medical bills. Part of the judgment goes to her husband, Nicholas Adamson, for harm to their relationship.

The verdict was returned Friday, April 1, after a nine-day trial before U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman. Jim Jacobsen, one of the attorneys representing the Juneau couple, said the eight-member jury deliberated about five hours before deciding the case.

The couple agreed not to collect on the judgment until after 5 p.m. April 29, and the port’s attorneys may file an appeal before that date, according to court documents filed April 4.

“The Port fully cooperated in the defense provided by its insurance carriers and these carriers have indicated that given the proceedings at trial they plan to appeal,” Port Executive Director Rob Fix wrote in an email. He declined to talk further about the case.

Friday’s judgment came on the heels of a Court of Appeals ruling preventing the port from seeking Alaska’s help to pay Adamson. That state’s ferry system leased the dock space where the accident happened.

Ramp had problems before accident

Adamson suffered life-threatening injuries in 2012 when a metal cable snapped on the passenger gangway ramp she was operating in Fairhaven, dropping the ramp about 20 feet. At the time she was working as mate aboard the Alaska ferry Columbia.

Jacobsen said Adamson suffered multiple fractures, two punctured lungs, a lacerated liver and a head injury. She was flown by helicopter to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where she was hospitalized for 10 days, he said.

Adamson sued the port in 2014, alleging widespread negligence, including allegations that the port knew the ramp had a faulty control panel based on a report written by a Seattle engineering firm, which had pointed out problems with the control panel and suggested it be fixed.

The jury found the port negligent for failing to fix operation of the passenger gangway ramp. Evidence presented during the trial showed there was a similar incident at the ramp in 2008, and the port knew there were issues.

We point out that the result of this incident could have been much worse.

Geiger Engineers, in a report after a 2008 incident on the ramp

The Geiger Engineers report stated that the ramp is held in place by hydraulically operated pins, which are released when wire ropes and winches are used to raise and lower the ramp.

In October 2008, an operator started feeding out wire rope without releasing those pins, and the wires became slack, the report states. When the operator realized the pins were still in place and released them, the ramp dropped an estimated 18 inches until the wire rope tightened and caught it.

“We point out that the result of this incident could have been much worse,” the report said, stating that had there been 24 inches of slack in the wires, they could have snapped.

The report suggested the controls could be changed to not allow slack in the wires while the pins are in place, and recommended replacing the wire ropes, as they could have been damaged.

However, Adamson’s lawyers said the Geiger Report was, for the most part, ignored. A copy was provided to the state of Alaska’s Risk Management Division, however the port never provided it to the Alaska Marine Highway System, which operates the ferries and leases dock space at the port.

“This is not a case where the port made a judgment call and made a mistake,” wrote Adamson’s attorneys in court documents. “This is a case where a defendant purposefully chose to subject its own employees … to a serious risk of injury of death.”

Lack of training

In addition to failing to fix the control panel, evidence at the trial showed that the port posted instructions on the ramp’s operation after the 2008 accident but never trained anyone on their use and never developed a system to determine who was qualified to operate the ramp.

The port’s lawyers argued that Adamson is at least partly responsible for her injuries.

“The evidence also shows that Ms. Adamson’s own conduct was negligent,” they wrote in court documents. Her “actions before operating the passenger ramp demonstrate that she knew she was insufficiently trained.”

In a declaration, Adamson explained she was trained on the equipment by someone who knew how to operate it, and said she was not warned that operating the controls could cause the ramp to collapse.

The level of training that I received made me believe that it was as safe to operate the passenger ramp as it would be to operate a building elevator.

Shannon Adamson, injured Alaska ferries worker, in a declaration

“There is no formal training for operating an elevator in a building. There is lengthy formal training and testing to be allowed to drive a car,” Adamson said in the declaration. “The level of training that I received made me believe that it was as safe to operate the passenger ramp as it would be to operate a building elevator.

“Both mechanical devices work in the same way,” the declaration continues. “It has never occurred to me that a properly maintained building elevator can break the cables and cause the elevator car to fall. It never occurred to me that the passenger ramp’s controls system could cause the ramp to collapse.”

The port conceded that it could have addressed the faulty control panel before 2012 and that the repairs were not made until after Adamson was injured.

The passenger ramp was left unusable after the November 2012 incident, until September 2014, when the state of Alaska and the port’s insurance company, Lexington Insurance, settled to split the $300,000 bill to repair damaged metal beams, cables, hydraulic hoses and other pieces of the ramp system.

When the ramp was repaired, the port modified the equipment so an operator can no longer withdraw the pins when the cables are slack, Fix said.

“That being said, this is a large piece of marine industrial equipment and therefore should only be operated by a person who has the training and experience to operate the equipment safely,” Fix wrote in an email.

Court of Appeals ruling

After the 2012 incident, the state of Alaska’s workers’ compensation program paid Adamson.

When she later sued the port for additional damages, the port wanted to add Alaska as a third-party defendant in that case, citing part of a lease between the port and the Alaska Marine Highway System for use of the Bellingham Cruise Terminal.

The port claimed that a provision in the lease obligated Alaska to compensate it for Adamson’s injuries, but Alaska disputed that interpretation.

On March 14, the state Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s decision to dismiss the port’s claims against the state of Alaska.

The appeals court assumed that the lease may have required Alaska to compensate the port for some or all of the damages incurred, but found that the marine highway system didn’t have the authority to sign a lease that allowed the port to sue the state.

“Alaska’s sovereign immunity would bar all five of the Port’s claims,” the decision states. “AMHS officials had no authority to subject Alaska to suits for which the legislature retained Alaska’s sovereign immunity.”

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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