Offshore InjuryBlog

Senate Called to Take Action to Prevent "Another" El Faro

The sinking of the El Faro last year was a tragedy that has not soon been forgotten. Taking the lives of all crewmembers on board, the devastating incident has been all the more frustrating for families due to the little action taken by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation to prevent similar tragedies from occurring.

Senator Bill Nelson recently asked the National Transportation Safety Board to continue their formerly stopped search for El Faro’s data recorder, one of the most important parts of the sunken vessel that has yet to be found. He believes this component is critical to determining the cause of the El Faro sinking, as well as preventing similar tragedies from taking place. On the other hand, others think this simply isn’t enough.

Further Action Needed to Avoid Future Tragedies

The sinking of the El Faro is believed to be a preventable tragedy by many. The vessel was old and patched up; most its age are no longer used for such voyages and it had undergone extensive repairs over the years. The engine is believed to have experienced trouble, causing the El Faro to be caught out at sea in the raging waters caused by Hurricane Joaquin. This is the same hurricane that the ship captain and owners—TOTE Maritime, Inc.—were aware of before allowing the vessel to take off on its trip.

“As an attorney representing families of those lost on the El Faro, I agree: We must take action to prevent future tragedies,” commented Kurt Arnold in a recent article published by Jacksonville.com of the Florida Times-Union.

Attorney Arnold doesn’t believe what has been done so far is really enough. “Nelson, however, as the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, has the power to do more,” he further explained.

How an Outdated Law Has Further Injured El Faro Families

One of the biggest hurdles families have faced after the tragic loss of their loved ones on the El Faro is TOTE’s blatant attempt to shirk all responsibility in the incident. The company filed for protection under the Limited Liability Act of 1851: a law that is more than a century and a half old. If TOTE is given relief under this antiquated law, they could limit their liability in the El Faro case to around $15 million. That amounts to minimal compensation between the families of the crew.

This is not the first time Attorney Arnold has seen such actions from maritime industry companies. “Because of outdated admiralty laws, families of a worker killed on the job at seas are entitled to substantially less than a worker on land. As a result, profit-driven companies like TOTE are more likely to cut corners and subject workers to riskier conditions,” he was quoted saying.

Nelson is aware of the fact that these types of liability caps are simply unfair. In fact, he filed legislation designed to help individuals injured in an Amtrak derailment, effectively overturning a measure passed by Congress that had previously limited the company’s liability in such accidents. Nelson has even commented on the issue, saying “We can’t allow anyone to suffer additionally due to an outdated cap based on mid-1990’s dollars.” This was a reference to a law that is 18 years old. Compare that to the 165-year-old Limited Liability Act of 1851, and by Nelson’s own logic, it is time for further action.

The Death of the Fairness in Admiralty and Maritime Law Act

In 2010, Sen. Jay Rockefeller noticed the outdated nature of maritime laws. He introduced a new bill, known as the Fairness in Admiralty and Maritime Law Act in 2010 after the devastating Deepwater Horizon disaster. This bill would have updated these outdated maritime laws and further protected workers and families. Unfortunately, the bill died when sent to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation—the very committee that Nelson is a part of.

If Nelson and his committee truly want to prevent maritime disasters like the sinking of the El Faro from happening again, it is time to recognize the role of maritime companies in such accidents. By updating laws like the Limited Liability Act of 1851, these companies will be held more accountable and forced to create safer work environments—something that is unfortunately too late for families of the El Faro crew, but not the rest of the maritime industry.

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