What’s the Legal Liability for Shipwrecks?

The cargo ship El Faro disappeared off the Bahamas on October 1st, and on November 2nd, the U.S. Navy confirmed that wreckage found over the weekend was the El Faro. In the time it took to confirm the location of the ship, five separate lawsuits have been filed: four from victims of the shipwreck’s families, and one from the ship’s owner seeking to block those lawsuits and shield itself from legal or financial liability for the wreck.

So who is responsible when a commercial ship sinks? And can the ship’s owners preemptively block any responsibility?

Standard Employer Negligence

The four families suing TOTE Maritime claim the El Faro had a poor maintenance history and that the company recklessly sent the ship sailing toward a hurricane. The ship disappeared off the coast of the Bahamas while Hurricane Joaquin was raging off the islands. The lawsuits allege the El Faro had faulty electrical systems and corroded steel, lacked on board functioning Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons, and was “routinely overloaded with cargo, including vehicles, that created hazardous conditions.”

Failure to properly maintain the El Faro could be evidence of employer negligence, as TOTE would have a legal duty to provide a safe working environment. TOTE’s complaint is an attempt to forestall any negligence claims, saying that says it “exercised due diligence” in preparing the ship for the voyage and thus should be free of “liability for any and all losses or damages sustained during the voyage … and from any and all claims for damages that have been or may hereafter be made.”

Jones and Death on the High Seas

Two statutes could hold the company liable, however. The Jones Act covers commercial shippers and protects employees at sea. As opposed to normal injury claims, a plaintiff in a Jones Act claim only needs to show that the employer’s negligence played some role in the injury.

Families of the victims may also sue under the Death on the High Seas Act, which provides that when “the death of an individual is caused by wrongful act, neglect, or default occurring on the high seas beyond 3 nautical miles from the shore of the United States, the personal representative of the decedent may bring a civil action in admiralty against the person or vessel responsible.”

The battle over the El Faro has already begun, with the owners trying to avoid any trial at all. We’ll see if the victims’ families will have their day in court.

If you have an injury claim against an employer, you may want to talk to an experienced injury attorney about your case.

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