El Faro crew families plan to fight major lawsuit limitation

The company that owns the sunken El Faro container ship won a court order that limits families of crew members who plan to file lawsuits.

TOTE Maritime cited a maritime law established in 1851 to protect itself from legal action.  All past and future lawsuits must now be filed in federal court no later than December 21.  TOTE was also granted a limit of $15 million in how much it can pay out in damages to all families combined.

Normally families would have three years to file their case under the Jones Act.  Now they have six to seven weeks to file a defense in the City of Jacksonville.

“What TOTE did is they went on offense,” says maritime attorney Kurt Arnold who currently represents two families of El Faro crew members.  “We obviously thought this was coming.  So essentially it’s forcing families to deal with the issue now, and if they don’t, they could be forever barred from bringing their claims against TOTE.”

Arnold says he’s going to defeat the limitation by telling the judge that the defense cannot meet their burden and presenting evidence showing TOTE knew of El Faro’s defects and poor condition before it departed.

“And if we show the court that, the court will bust the limitation,” he says.

Then families will be allowed to have their cases pending in state court and get to have jury trials on all of the issues, according to Arnold.

“The company has been trying to distance themselves from any of the decision-making by just essentially blaming the captain,” Arnold says.

He calls TOTE’s planning and involvement in El Faro’s departure “very intense” and says they “won’t get away” with the limitation they’ve pinned on the families.

“We’re going to show the court that [TOTE] is not entitled to this limitation and that we’re entitle to a jury trial in state court.”

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson spoke about the issue on the Senate floor on Wednesday, saying he’s concerned about any attempts by TOTE to limit its liability.

"This is clearly hasty decision-making," Nelson said. "It clearly is a matter of concern to me because most of these mariners were from my state of Florida. Their families are grieving and hoping for any answers as to what happened to their loved ones."

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