Last October, 33 people lost their loves when the cargo ship, El Faro, sank off the coast of the Bahamas during a hurricane. Bangor Daily News called the tragedy the worst cargo shipping disaster since the 1980s.
The vessel, owned by TOTE Maritime, had a history of substandard maintenance. As we’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the families who lost their loved ones filed lawsuits against TOTE for recklessly endangering the lives of the workers on board. TOTE responded by quickly slapping the families with a lawsuit for a Petition for Limitation of Liability. This meant, if the petition were a success, the families would receive very little in the amount of compensation because the petition would limit the amount paid to families to significantly less than they deserved.
Families Fight the Limitation of Liability Lawsuit by Trying to Change the Law
The petition filed under the Limited Liability Act of 1851 is an outdated law that now only saves modern day insurance companies money. Rather than fight the petition that caps how much money can be paid in compensation, the attorney who represents El Faro victim family members began urging lawmakers to change the 165-year-old limited liability law. The attorney made a statement saying he just wanted to make sure something like the El Faro tragedy never happened again.
One senator in particularly criticized TOTE on just how quickly it filed the petition. The senator was astounded about how the ship had barely been discovered less than three weeks before, yet the company suddenly knew without a doubt or proof from an investigation that it wasn’t responsible or at fault for the loss of 33 lives. Yes, it seems rather suspicious.
Five days later, TOTE settled with 10 families for a larger amount.
Why did the Petition For Limitation of Liability Filed by the El Faro Owners Fail?
Normally, families have up to three years to file a case for wrongful death if they lose a loved one at sea. However, when TOTE filed a Petition for Limited Liability, it not only forced families to deal with the issue immediately in court, it stopped any other claims being made against the company and barred any future claims had the petition succeeded.
The lawyer representing the families responded by telling the judge the defense could not meet the burden of presenting evidence against TOTE, which probably was more due to the fact the defense had, up to this point, no time to launch an investigation proving TOTE was aware of the ship’s poor maintenance prior to its departure. This was enough to show the petition was a hasty defensive strike, likely implying the company had known about the conditions, and the court ruled against it.
Now, without anything to look forward to except a trial by jury against 33 families seeking justice, an investigation that would show the less than substantial maintenance done on a 40-year-old ship and no Petition for Limited Liability to hide behind, TOTE offered a larger amount to families of victims lost due to their negligence.
Ten Families of El Faro Victims Win a Larger Settlement
The ten families involved in the petition lawsuit accepted TOTE’s settlement offer. Each family received $500,000 for the death and suffering of their loved one, as well as amounts paid for lost wages or other economic hardships the families endured as a result of the loss. The 23 remaining cases remain pending in court.
Other families, whose cases are still pending, are demanding changes from lawmakers. For one, they are petitioning to stop ships from moving forward if a storm is approaching. The petition also calls for an emergency help line for crewmembers.
Latti & Anderson LLP is a maritime injury firm that helps nationwide family members of victims lost at sea.