Steep insurance costs prompt fishermen to rethink safety on deck

Commercial fishermen, facing a rising tide of insurance costs, are being encouraged to pay more heed to safety aboard their boats as one way of possibly reducing rates. Statistics tell a downbeat tale of what many people envision as a romantic seafaring industry. Fatalities among commercial fishermen occur at a rate seven times the national average for all industries. Twice as many fishermen are killed on the job each year as miners, whose occupation is rated as the second most hazardous.

United States Coast Guard records show that in an average year 250 fishing boats sink off the nation's coasts and 75 fishermen perish. The fishing industry also is among the leaders in on-the-job injuries.

Industry observers say many fishermen can no longer afford the burgeoning premiums charged by the dwindling number of insurance companies still willing to sell them insurance policies.

The combination of high casualty statistics and the trend in US courts toward very large cash settlements in personal-injury cases has brought about what everyone involved calls a ``crisis in marine insurance.''

Though its hazards are at the heart of the crisis, the US fishing industry is virtually without safety regulations. And no one is proposing new rules for fishermen.

``The Coast Guard aims to reduce casualties by 10 percent by 1991 without additional regulations,'' says John Sabella of the Seattle-based North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners Association.

Seeking better preparation for emergencies and safer methods of operation, Mr. Sabella and the Coast Guard plan to publish regional safety manuals.

They are also collaborating on a national crew-training program. Soaring insurance rates that threaten to beach fishermen might provide the motivation for them to examine their operations voluntarily, Sabella says.

But others note that increased safety won't necessarily result in appreciably lower insurance rates. Some industry observers say that premiums were unrealistically lowered when many insurers were seeking to attract investment cash to take advantage of the extremely high interest rates of the mid-1970s.

Sabella links safety to better management of the fisheries. Limited catch quotas and shorter seasons tend to force fishermen who face mortgage payments and other bills to venture into marginal weather and work with too little rest, he said.

Congressional remedies to the problem of high insurance premiums for fishermen have proved illusive, said Rod Moore, an aide to US Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska, a major fishing state.

Fishermen aren't the only ones clamoring for relief from climbing insurance rates. Doctors, municipal employees, day-care center operators, and workers in other occupations labeled risky by the insurance industry have recently found it difficult to afford to stay insured and in business.

The problem can be traced to huge court settlements on personal-injury lawsuits, Mr. Moore said. ``Any legislation must look at ways to limit liability.''

One proposal before Congress calls for limiting insurance companies' liability in the majority of fishing-injury cases to medical expenses and lost wages. This would eliminate ``noneconomic damages,'' such as pain, suffering, and mental anguish.

The legislation was written by Dennis W. Nixon, a professor at the University of Rhode Island.

He proposes that fishermen suffering injuries that keep them out of work less than a year immediately receive total medical coverage and full compensation for lost wages.

In addition, Professor Nixon advocates establishing a disability-income insurance program for fishermen. One of Nixon's goals is to lock lawyers out of a majority of the fishing industry's personal-injury cases. Attorney fees amount to one-third of the total award in an average case settled before trial, but lawyers get half of the settlement in a typical injury or death case that goes to trial, Nixon said.

The challenge is to give insurance companies predictability without depriving injured workers of their just compensation and of legal recourse. Said one personal-injury attorney:

``When you limit a fisherman's right to sue, you're protecting boatowners and insurance companies, but what have you done for those out on the deck who are taking all the risks?''

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