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Wrongful death lawsuits pending with the death of US fishing vessel captain

Michael Castaneda
One in local high court, the other in federal court in California

by Fili Sagapolutele

Samoa News Correspondent

Two similar but separate wrongful death lawsuits are pending before the High Court of American Samoa and the federal court in Santa Ana, California in connection with the death of the captain of a US fishing vessel, which was docked at the cannery side of Pago Pago Harbor late last year.

Attorneys for the defendants which include Samoa Tuna Processors (STP) Inc., Samoa Fishing Management (SFM) Inc., — both companies part of the Tri Marine Group — as well as Tri Marine its self have sought to have the federal case dismissed arguing that the court in American Samoa, where the incident occurred, can better adjudicate the case.

Samoa News had reported last November of the death of the 62-year old captain of the US flagged purse seiner, Cape Ferrat, who died Oct. 28, while the vessel was in Pago Pago. Local police investigated the incident and recommended closing the case, after they determined no foul play was involved, and the incident was an unfortunate accident.


In the local lawsuit, filed in August this year, the deceased is identified as Michael Castaneda, while the vessel itself is also identified as a defendant. (The vessel is owned by Cape Ferrat Fishing Lp). Plaintiffs in the suit are Maren MIller, personal representative of the beneficiaries and estate of Castaneda, and the deceased’s wife, Tracey Castaneda.

“Due to the negligent acts and omissions of the defendants and the ‘unseaworthy’ condition of the vessel, the Decedent was drowned on a dark night after he fell from the unfit, unprotected, inadequate and unsafe gangway into the harbor water below the gangway between the vessel and the dock,” the plaintiffs allege in court documents.

They further alleged that there was “insufficient or no lighting in the area where the accident occurred and no ladder or other which by Decedent could readily climb back up on the wharf or the vessel and... the rescue attempt by defendants was negligently performed.”

“As a result, Decedent drowned,” according to the lawsuit, which alleges that the accident happened after the Decedent “was compelled to attend a company dinner ashore hosted by the vessel’s management.”

It claimed that at the end of the dinner, the vessel’s navigator was ordered by the vessel’s manager to personally escort Decedent safely to the deck of the vessel. However, the lawsuit alleges that the “navigator negligently failed” to do so, but rather dropped the Decedent off from a taxi at the entrance to STP.

After falling into the harbor, “Decedent ‘consciously survived’ in the water for an appreciable period of time before drowning death [sic],” according to the lawsuit.

Plaintiffs allege that all of the wrongful acts or omissions — outlined in the complaint — were authorized or ratified by the defendants.

Plaintiffs outlined five “cause of action” against the defendants with three against the vessel — wrongful death claim for unseaworthiness, survival claim for unseaworthiness, and survival claim for unpaid wages — and two against STP and SFM — wrongful death claim and survival claim under the laws of American Samoa.

Among the allegations against STP and SFM is that they breached their duties to care for Decedent for several reasons including, the refusal or failure to allow the vessel to extend its gangway fully; failure to provide adequate lighting on the dock; failure to have any rescue plan; and failure to train and educate its employees in proper water rescue techniques.

The lawsuit also included a police report following the investigation, which found no evidence of foul play. It also states that the police investigation revealed the death as by accident, but a medical examination is required to officially determine the cause of death.

Plaintiffs also provided for the court, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspection report to  Mrs. Castaneda of her husband’s death.

“OSHA’s inspection determined that the end of the gangway was not flush with the top of the bulwark, and steps with a handrail were not provided to prevent fall hazards,” according to the Mar. 29, 2018 letter from OHSA Honolulu District Office to Mrs. Castaneda. “Additionally, the railing was secured at the top of gangway and a net was not rigged between the ship and the pier.”

OHSA also provided brief fact sheet that explained the agency’s citation and penalty policy that was imposed against the vessel’s owner, Cape Ferrat Fishing LP.

As previously reported by Samoa News, the final OSHA judgement against the fishing company was $3,696. (See Samoa News edition Sept. 20th for details).

A copy of the lawsuit, were among several documents, filed with the Santa Ana federal court by local attorney Roy J.D Hall Jr., who’s representing STP and SFM. He is also representing STP and SFM in the federal case.

The vessel is represented by local attorney Gwen Tauiliili-Langkilde while plaintiffs are represented by Marcellus Tala Uiagalelei, along with mainland based attorney William Banning.

Attorneys for the defendants have denied the allegations in court filing.

Upon filing the local complaint, Banning had the vessel arrested in Pago Pago and Banning “refused to accept a letter of of undertaking (LOU) to secure the vessel’s release,” Hall said in his federal court filings.

Hall explained that the vessel was “forced” to file a motion asking the High Court to accept the LOU in lieu of posting a bond to release the vessel.

Shortly after the vessel’s arrest, plaintiffs served deposition subpoenas on all 24 crew-members of the vessel, which then moved to quash the subpoenas. STP and SFM joined the motion. Hall also included as part of the record, a transcript of the hearing.

The High Court on Sept. 24th granted the vessel’s motions, accepting the LOU and quashing the subpoenas, according to Hall, as well as documents he filed with the federal court.

Plaintiffs had sought to have the vessel post a $4 million surety bond.

Samoa News will report in a future edition, on the federal complaint, which includes Tri Marine as a defendant.