JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Four more families have settled in federal court with the company that owns the Jacksonville-based cargo ship El Faro.
The 790-foot SS El Faro sank in a hurricane Oct. 1 after losing propulsion near the Bahamas on its way from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico. All 33 aboard died.
The U.S. Coast Guard completed 10 days of hearings last week investigating the ship's sinking and final voyage.
The families of crew members Jackie Robert Jones Jr., of Jacksonville, Dylan O. Meklin, of Rockland, Maine, Danielle Laura Rudolph, of Rockland, Maine, and Michael Lee Holland, of North Walton, Maine, each settled wrongful death lawsuits with El Faro's parent company, TOTE Services. The settlements were for $500,000 each for "pain and suffering" and an agreed upon, non-disclosed amount for economic losses for each family.
That brings the total of families who have settled with Sea Star Lines and TOTE Services to 14.
“Since the loss of the El Faro, we have focused every effort on supporting the families of those on board," TOTE said in a statement. "An important part of this support has entailed reaching fair and swift legal settlements for those who may choose them. We can confirm that we have settled financially with 14 families through a respectful and equitable mediation process. We stress that our support of all the families will continue. Out of respect for the legal process and the privacy of the families, we will not discuss the specifics of any individual legal actions.”
An attorney representing families of four El Faro crew members who have not settled their lawsuits against TOTE said he thinks the company is bullying the families into settling quickly.
"It's sad to see TOTE use outdated maritime laws to push these families into settling for much less than what they deserve," attorney Jason Itkin of Arnold & Itkin LLP, a Houston-based law firm, said in a statement. " If our senators and other politicians would do something about updating the ancient Limited Liability Act of 1851, TOTE would not have the power to put these grieving families in the difficult position of settling when they deserve so much more. We'll be continuing the fight for the families we represent, and we want to send a message to TOTE and to other shipping companies that they cannot afford to be reckless with people's lives."
Itkin's firm represents the families of Anthony Shawn Thomas, Howard John Schoenly, Joe Edward Hargrove and German Cortes.
After weeks of searching for the sunken ship, a special Navy deep-sea exploration ship found the wreckage, but not the ship's data recorder. The National Transportation Safety Board plans to search again for the voyage data record in April.
If the VDR is not found in the two-week search, the next round of Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation hearings will likely be in late May. If it is found, the hearings would likely be pushed back until July.
Previously, 10 families had come to settlements with TOTE.
When those settlements were announced, TOTE officials said they would not release details of the settlement "out of respect for the legal process and the privacy of the families.” But court documents showed that each family received $500,000 for pain and suffering plus compensation for lost wages and other losses.
The families included in the initial settlement announcement included the captain, five Polish crew members and four others, including Jacksonville Beach resident Roan Lightfoot. Claims for the remaining crew members, many of whom were from Jacksonville, are still pending, as well as claims from owners of lost cargo.
TOTE had asked a federal judge to limit or release its liability, and company officials have claimed that the El Faro was maintained properly and in good condition.