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Mariner's Family Demands El Faro's Owners Pay Up

The cargo ship sank during a hurricane with 33 people on board.
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The family of a crewman who went down with the cargo ship El Faro has filed suit against the vessel's owner — and demanded it not invoke an old maritime law to limit its liability to as little as $30,000 per victim.

Lawyers for relatives of Anthony Shawn Thomas allege the 30-year-old ship was too old and had too many problems to be sent into a hurricane, where it lost power and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic with 33 people on board.

"We want the companies involved to take responsibility for their role in this tragedy, and we want other shipping companies to learn from these mistakes," attorney Kurt Arnold said in a statement.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the Oct. 1 disaster and has not determined the cause.

READ: Doomed Cargo Ship Needed Work on Boilers

In the lawsuit, Arnold alleges that the ship "had a history of losing power while under voyage and during hurricanes." It attached three Coast Guard incident reports but none of them were labeled "serious" by investigators.

Image: Anthony Shawn Thomas with his wife Tinisha Thomas
Anthony Shawn Thomas, a victim of the El Faro ship sinking, with his wife Tinisha Thomas.The Estate of Anthony Shawn Thomas.

The lawyer said the families of the mariners who died "face an uphill battle" in the courts because of an 1851 law that says a shipping company can only be forced to pay the value of the ship and cargo after the disaster — essentially nothing in this case — or an amount based on the tonnage of the vessel.

That formula would mean Tote would be on the hook for less than $1 million, or $30,000 per mariner, if the law is successfully invoked.

"We will be asking the defendants to do the right thing for the men and women who served them," Arnold said. "We hope they will not seek protection under this ridiculous law — to do so would be a disservice to the memory of the brave people who served aboard the El Faro."

In an email, TOTE said it had no comment.

"The company will not discuss individual legal actions, out of respect for the legal process," a spokesman said. "Our focus remains on support and care for the families and their loved ones."