Judge rules Trident Seafoods liable for lax security

Posted: Wednesday, June 04, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) An Anchorage judge has ordered one of Alaska's biggest seafood processing companies to pay $1.25 million in damages for its role in the savage beating of a man at one of its remote processing plants in the Aleutians.

Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason found Seattle-based Trident Seafoods Inc. liable for injuries inflicted on Ben Darling at its Akutan plant in 1997.

Darling had complained to plant managers that employees were buying and selling alcohol, contrary to plant policy. He was severely beaten a few days later by Trident employees, his attorney said, and suffered permanent brain damage.

Gleason blamed the attack on lax security at the plant, specifically because managers turned their back on alcohol sales at the facility.

Trident president Chuck Bundrant called Darling's injuries unfortunate and reiterated the company's claims that he may have slipped on an icy floor and fallen. Bundrant took issue with the judge's depiction of his plant.

The situation at Akutan was ''blown way out of proportion,'' he told the Anchorage Daily News. ''It's more law-abiding than most places in Alaska.''

Darling's attorney, Richard Vollertsen, called Gleason's decision courageous, ''... one that will require seafood processors, and all employers, to take responsibility for security at their facilities,'' he said.

Gleason issued her verdict in March. Trident agreed not to appeal the case, Vollertsen said, in exchange for keeping the decision sealed until the Bristol Bay salmon price-fixing trial ended. Trident was among the defendants. The judge unsealed the ruling in the Darling case last week.

Akutan is northeast of Unalaska in the Aleutian Chain and home to about 75 year-round residents and the largest fish processing plant in North America. At peak periods the Trident facility hires as many as 800 workers. Most live in company bunkhouses, eat at the company mess hall and work long hours.

Darling was one of those workers, coming to Akutan in the early 1990s, said Vollertsen. Unlike most, he stayed in the village after he quit the plant. In late 1997 he was a part-time assistant harbormaster and part-time bartender.

On Dec. 27, Darling walked into the plant after buying three cases of soda in the company store. He came out on a stretcher.

One of the central issues of the case was whether Darling fell or was assaulted. Because of his brain injury, he cannot identify his assailants.

Trident suggested Darling slipped on ice and fell on his head. Expert witnesses, however, said the combination of injuries could not have been caused by a fall. The size and shape of Darling's skull fracture and lacerations suggest he was hit with a pipe, they said.

Darling had complained previously to plant managers about employees importing alcohol into the plant. Though the company has a no-alcohol policy, managers testified in court they allowed employees to have booze.

Trident engineer Chris Clark testified that he not only imported alcohol but sold it to other employees and that top managers knew about his activities.

A few days before Darling's assault, managers confiscated seven cases of beer that Clark had purchased and reprimanded him, but then gave him back the beer.

Alaska State Troopers brought charges against three Trident employees, including Clark, in the beating. The charges were eventually dropped by the district attorney's office.

Darling and his parents filed suit against Trident Seafoods and plant managers Dave Abbasian and Bret Joines in 1999.

At the non-jury trial, Vollertsen argued that the assault would never have occurred if Trident had demanded better security at Akutan. The long hours, multiracial work force, close quarters and access to alcohol make an explosive combination, he said.

''If the corporation isn't behind (a commitment to security), people are going to take advantage, especially if there's booze available,'' he said.

Darling, who now lives in Montana, continues to suffer from problems with concentration and memory, Vollertsen said. He received nearly $960,000 to cover his medical costs and for pain and suffering, plus attorney's fees.

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