Master Awarded Damages After Whistleblowing Appeal
A U.S. seaman has won an appeal and been awarded over $1 million in damages after he was removed from the job after whistleblowing whilst he was master of the container ship Horizon Trader.
The former Horizon Lines master, John Loftus, reported safety concerns to the U.S. Coast Guard and ABS in 2013 and was subsequently discharged from master’s duties. Loftus had been a master for 20 years and had served on Horizon Trader since 2007.
The court found that Loftus’ right to be free of retaliation for whistleblowing was violated, and that Horizon Lines could not provide clear evidence that he would have been demoted regardless of his actions.
Several incidents preceded the particular case in question. Loftus first made a complaint in 2011 where he reported equipment problems after several power box fires. He claimed to have brought the problems to the attention of the company on numerous occasions to no avail. After a U.S. Coast Guard inspection, Horizon Lines removed the hazardous fire boxes and rented new ones.
Then, in August 2012, Loftus email company management over 13 issues he felt violated company policy and Coast Guard regulations. Several company representatives visited him, and he threatened to go to the Coast Guard or ABS. Instead, the company went to ABS and subsequently fixed the equipment involved.
In April 2013, Loftus emailed the U.S. Coast Guard about a conflict between mandatory drug testing requirements and a captain’s duty and authority to do what is safe. The situation arose after a crew member fell and was injured. He tested the crewman for alcohol, but shore side staff had ordered several people be drug tested as well.
Loftus said in his email: “As a Master, who has been up for over 48 hours, safe to do testing after docking, and coming through weather as we came through[?] What about rest, so the Master can address the next emergency? What is the priority? Why can’t this testing duty fall upon a shore side vendor? Is rest a reason to delay the testing? Should a Master, remove his mind from the safety of the vessel to meet a time deadline? Someone needs to address these questions. Otherwise, a more serious marine accident may be caused.”
The Coast Guard acknowledged his concerns as legitimate, but urged him to contact shore side management.
Following a root cause analysis, Horizon Lines stood Loftus down on May 28. He was told that he could work as chief mate after completing leadership and communication skills training.
As a result of the upholding of his appeal, Loftus is to receive over $655,000 in back pay, $10,000 for emotional distress and $225,000 in damages.
The ruling is available here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.