In a move that is both unfortunate but expected, TOTE Maritime and Sea Star Lines obtained an order from a Federal Judge requiring the families of the 33 crew members who died while serving aboard the El Faro to file their wrongful death claims by December 21, 2015. This means that the families through a personal representative of the crew members' estates must file their claims in the Federal Middle District of Florida by the December 21, 2015 deadline or risk losing the right to sue TOTE Maritime and Sea Star Lines for the deaths of their loved ones.
Besides forcing grieving families to participate in a lawsuit which they may not be ready to emotionally address, the limitation proceedings initiated by TOTE Maritime and Sea Star Lines give the shipowners other distinct tactical advantages. First of which the limitation proceedings may entitle them to limit the total amount TOTE Maritime and Sea Star Lines have to pay the grieving families to $15,309,003.50. The order setting the December 21, 2015 filing deadline also stayed the various state court lawsuits brought against the El Faro's owners requiring them to refile their claims in the Federal limitation proceedings. The limitation proceedings also preclude the families from having a jury of their loved one's peers decide the case. Instead, a Federal Judge will be the sole fact finder.
As you can see, the limitation proceedings give the shipowners many advantages over the grieving families. However, the decision to bring a limitation proceeding in no way guarantees TOTE Maritime and Sea Star Lines, or more appropriately their marine insurance carriers, the ability to prevent the families of the 33 crew members from obtaining the true value of their claims. TOTE Maritime and Sea Star Lines could only achieve an order limiting their liability if they both prove by the greater weight of the evidence that they did not know nor could they have known of the unseaworthy condition(s) or negligent act(s) which caused the El Faro to sink. This may be very difficult given the facts of the case and admissions made by corporate officers of TOTE Maritime. There are also ways within the law for the families to stay the Federal proceedings and allow the case to be first decided within the state court system with the benefit of a jury.
Navigating a limitation proceeding could be very tricky. It is for this reason our attorneys have written a paper on the subject that was presented at a maritime law conference. If you are following the unfortunate events surrounding the El Faro sinking and would like to learn more about the Limitation Act and how it applies to this case, feel free to contact our Florida Board Certified Admiralty and Maritime Attorneys.