Offshore InjuryBlog

Ship Owners File Lawsuit Against Families Whose Sons Died in Collision

Yesterday we published a blog talking about the USS McCain accident of August 2017, which led to the deaths of 10 U.S. sailors off the coast of Singapore. The incident is back in the news as 10 families bring lawsuits against the owners of the Alnic, the merchant tanker that collided with the McCain. Our very own Cory Itkin represents 9 of the 10 families.

Today, we round up the most notable reports and observations to bring you a comprehensive look at the coverage.

What Happened to the USS John McCain?

On August 21 of last year, the USS McCain's master asked two helmsmen to divide control of the helm and throttle, but the helm was mistakenly transferred to the wrong console. As a result, the crew believed they had lost steering. The helmsman on the throttle pulled back on one of the two controls, causing the McCain to travel into the lane of the Alnic.

At the time, the Alnic was on autopilot. Despite the fact that the Alnic's master had seen the McCain before the collision, he did not sound a warning signal to the other ship. He also didn't pull back the throttle enough to sufficiently slow down. Combined with fewer watchstanders than Singapore regulations require and an understaffed bridge crew, the Alnic struck the McCain shortly after the latter ship crossed the path of the former. These details all appeared in a report from Maritime Executive.

The news report from the Herald Review reveals the heartbreaking conclusion to the story. The Alnic struck the sleeping quarters of the McCain, which quickly flooded. Ten sailors suffered severe burns and other injuries to their bodies before drowning. None of them escaped.

Why the Owners of the Alnic Filed a Lawsuit Against Our Clients

In February of this year, the owners of the Alnic—Energetic Tank—filed a lawsuit under the Limitation of Liability Act to exonerate themselves of any liability. Failing that, they requested that the total compensation for the event be limited to $16.7 million, the reported worth of the vessel. The Liberian company filed suit in federal court in New York. Theresa Palmer, the mother of one of the sailors, said, "When the families first got news of it we were very upset, very angry. We’re already bereaved and now here is just one more thing to add to it all."

Quoted in the Herald, U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis added, “I think it’s tragic that any company, no matter where they’re based, is filing a lawsuit against the families who lost their children.”

The Baltimore Sun notes that filing under the Limitation of Liability Act actually forced the bereaved families to file lawsuits before June 15. “These families were still grieving. They weren’t looking for lawyers. They were looking for answers," Cory Itkin said. "By suing the families, the Alnic has forced them into court.”

What Is the Limited Liability Act of 1851?

This isn't the first time that our firm has faced 21st-century lawsuits governed by the Limited Liability Act of 1851. The El Faro disaster of 2015 dragged on for over a year because TOTE Maritime refused to be held accountable before the 33 families who lost loved ones during Hurricane Joaquin. Now, it's Energetic who's trying to protect themselves using irrelevant laws.

The report from Maritime Executive quoted Cory Itkin saying, “The Limited Liability Act of 1851 is out-dated. It was meant for a time when ship captains couldn’t communicate with the shore, when they didn’t have radar and weather reports and GPS. Now it’s just an obsolete law that lets shipping companies wash their hands and walk away."

The report from WandTV accurately observes that our firm finds the Limited Liability Act unconstitutional. Our lawsuit asserts that the pre-Civil War law "deprives claimants of property right without due process of law" in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

It's Not About Money—It's About Making Sure This Never Happens Again

Ms. Palmer and the rest of our clients believe that, whatever the McCain's actions that morning, the Alnic was operated recklessly and negligently—and their actions caused the collision that killed their sons. No matter the result of the lawsuit, Alnic needs to change how it operates. "There is not enough money," she said, "to bring back any of our sons." But there is enough to hold Alnic accountable.

Military.com reports that the Navy has already implemented reforms to fortify training and situational awareness at sea.

In an email we sent to the Baltimore Sun, Cory wrote, “The Navy responded to this tragedy by investigating the incident, holding individuals accountable, and reviewing ways to prevent something similar from happening again. Energetic Tank—the company that owns the ALNIC—responded by filing a lawsuit. The families are responding to the lawsuit to make sure Energetic Tank doesn’t escape accountability.”

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