Are Offshore Companies Required to Protect Their Workers from Storms?
Recently, two incidents involving storms and offshore work have grabbed headlines. The first incident occurred last fall when the Deepwater Asgard was left in the path of a hurricane despite pleas from the crew and warnings from weather experts. The incident was harrowing and resulted in an experience that some of the crew members will forever be traumatized by.
The second incident resulted in tragedy. On April 13, 2021, a series of serious storms struck the Gulf area of Louisiana. That same day, the Seacor Power, a lift boat, left Port Fourchon on a mission to deliver supplies to a platform owned and operated by Talos Energy. The vessel only made it about 8 miles into its 100-mile journey before capsizing. Immediately after the storm, six crew members were pulled from the water while 13 remained missing. Eventually, several bodies were recovered from the water and from inside the turned-over liftboat. For weeks after the incident, volunteers searched for the missing—all of whom were assumed dead by the U.S. Coast Guard.
While both incidents ended differently for the crews of the respective vessels, they each have brought up a question among offshore workers: are companies doing enough to protect offshore workers from storms?
Offshore Weather Technology & Offshore Safety
In 1850, a law known as the Limitation of Liability Act was passed. It was created in response to the harrowing conditions that offshore workers faced at the time. Specifically, it limited the liability a vessel owner had after accidents caused by conditions they couldn’t prevent. In the age of pirates, disease, unpredictable weather, and other dangers, vessel owners needed to be protected from incidents they couldn’t prevent—especially when they had no way to communicate with their ships.
Today, the offshore scene is much different. Pirates aren’t a problem in most waters, vessels can be instantaneously reached via satellite or radio, and weather forecasts are advanced and reliable. In other words, we live in an offshore industry that doesn’t have to deal with the dangerous mysteries that it faced in the past. Vessel owners can receive advance warning of dangers their workers are facing and have an obligation to make sure they’re protected.
The Jones Act requires vessel owners to make sure their workers are safe from preventable hazards, including storms. Unfortunately, some companies take risks and send their workers into danger regardless of severe weather warnings or conditions that are already underway. While they might try to hide behind the 170-year-old Limitation of Liability Act after an incident, offshore workers deserve better.
The El Faro Sinking: Defeating the Limitation of Liability Act
In 2015, the El Faro, a cargo shipped owned by TOTE Maritime, sailed into a hurricane despite advanced warnings of its strength and presence. The vessel sunk, killing all 33 crew members onboard. Arnold & Itkin LLP represented some of the widows created by this tragic and preventable accident. Like many offshore companies do in this situation, TOTE Maritime invoked the Limitation of Liability Act to escape full accountability for its recklessness.
Our team stood up against this attempt, successfully demanding that the company do the right thing before a judge. Ultimately, we were able to make sure TOTE couldn’t hide behind a limitation action and secured the compensation our clients needed. While nothing could change what these widows went through, our offshore lawyers were proud to secure the accountability that they deserved.
The El Faro and cases like it show one thing: companies are responsible for protecting workers from storms. When they fail to do so, we’ll be there to demand the answers that suffering families deserve.