Two More Lawsuits In El Faro Disaster

Contractors aboard the Navy tug Apache recover the ORION sonar tow package. The Apache's search for the El Faro's voyage data recorder has been called off. (File photo, U.S. Navy)

By MarEx 2015-11-18 14:32:22

In an announcement on November 17, a Florida maritime law firm said that two more families of lost crewmembers of the El Faro will file suit against TOTE Maritime, the vessel's operator.

Relatives of crewmembers Louis Champa Jr., 51, and Richard Pusatere, 34, will be represented by Miami attorney John H. Hickey. Their suits will raise the total number of plaintiffs to eight out of 33 families affected.

Mr. Hickey said that his firm would be filing the two new claims shortly, and is in contact with additional families regarding further potential lawsuits against TOTE. He is board certified to try both maritime and civil cases.

Under a court order, the remaining families have until December 21 to file claims in Jacksonville.

On November 2, TOTE sought a ruling from the U.S. District Court in Florida, invoking U.S. maritime law limiting claims. The company's attorneys said in a filing that since it had “exercised due diligence” and had operated a safe ship, it should not be financially liable in suits filed by crewmembers' families.

The court did not grant TOTE full relief from liability, but it did issue a ruling limiting claims to $15 million if in the suits' outcome the company was not found negligent.

“There are exceptions under that same statute and the maritime law where this limitation of liability does not apply,” a statement from Hickey’s law firm said. “We will fight that limitation on behalf of our clients.”

TOTE spokesman Mike Hanson told media that "the company will not discuss individual legal actions, out of respect for the legal process. Our focus remains on support and care for the families and their loved ones.” 

Media sources previously reported that TOTE offered a settlement of lost wages plus $500,000 apiece to the families of the El Faro's 33 crew. Six other lawsuits have been filed against the company in the wake of the loss of the El Faro on October 1. Several lawyers for affected familes have described the offer as insufficient.

Earlier statements by TOTE indicated discussions on settling claims. "We confirm that families have been contacted regarding compensation . . . We do understand that in these difficult and tragic circumstances, a number of families may have pressing financial burdens and we want to ensure that we are there to help immediately,” TOTE said.

TOTE said in an earlier statement that “our focus has been on supporting and caring for the family members, loved ones, and friends of those aboard the El Faro . . . we have met with [them] here in Jacksonville, and have communicated by phone with those unable to be here, making every effort to communicate everything we know as swiftly as we know it.”