Lawyers for the company that owned the wrecked cargo ship El Faro and lawyers for crew members who died when it sank last month are battling in court over whether the victims' families can even go to court.
In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, Florida, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico and its Sea Star Lines subsidiary asked a judge to absolve it of any financial liability in connection with lawsuits brought by relatives of the 33 crew members — now or in the future. The action could stall any lawsuits until TOTE's liability is clarified.
The company argues that it "exercised due diligence" to ensure the seaworthiness of the El Faro and thus should be shielded from 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."
At least one lawsuit has already been filed, and Monday, lawyers for five other crew members responded to TOTE's complaint with a second action claiming that the ship was overdue for repairs; that TOTE knew the El Faro had problems with its structural steel, machinery and electronics; and that the ship was overloaded when it set out Sept. 29 from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The 790-foot ship went missing Oct. 1 during Hurricane Joaquin. Its wreckage was found Saturday in 15,000 feet of water east of the Bahamas. Authorities said their goal is to find the ship's black box, which could offer clues to what went wrong.
Michael Winkleman of Miami, a lawyer for relatives of the five Polish crew members, told reporters Monday afternoon that with its court filing, TOTE was "pouring salt on the families' wounds."
"We expect this to be a long fight, and we will fight for as long as it takes," he said.
TOTE said it wouldn't discuss individual legal actions.