Final 3 El Faro families settle with TOTE Services

All 33 families now settled, avoids trial for ship owners

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The last three of 33 families of victims of the El Faro disaster have reached settlement agreements with TOTE Services, the owner of the doomed Jacksonville-based cargo ship.

The families of Anthony Thomas, Joe Hargrove and German Solar-Cortes were the last who had not come to an  agreement with TOTE. Their settlements assure that there will be no trial of TOTE next year.

While TOTE officials said they would not release details of the settlement "out of respect for the legal process and the privacy of the families," court documents show that each family will receive $500,000 each for pain and suffering plus compensation for lost wages and other losses.

"It never has been about money for me," said Rochelle Hamm, widow of an El Faro crew member. "It’s been about making sure this don’t happen again. I’m sure each family had to do what it had to do."

Rod Sullivan, a maritime attorney, said the fact that all the employee suits are settled is a relief to the entire industry.

"Shipping companies doesn’t have insurance, so what they do is they combine and self-insure each other," Sullivan said. "TOTE belongs to a club that has 8,000 ships in it and they get together and pay out these claims."

Sullivan said there are still some outstanding court cases concerning lost cargo. The final report into the El Faro's sinking from the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board is due within a year.

For months, investigators listened to 26 hours of conversations of the El Faro's crew, captured by the ship's voyage data recorder as they rode to their doom. The 790-foot ship sank on Oct. 1, 2015, after losing propulsion in Hurricane Joaquin. The bodies of the crew were never found.

It would be months before search crews found the wreckage. El Faro had come to rest 15,000 feet down, on the sea floor near the Bahamas. The bridge where helmsman Frank Hamm and Capt. Michael Davidson struggled for survival had separated from the vessel's hull, and lay a quarter mile away.

No bodies were ever recovered. It was the worst maritime disaster for a U.S.-flagged vessel since 1983.

During Coast Guard hearings, TOTE defended its safety record, and emphasized that El Faro was permitted to operate by the Coast Guard despite the issues flagged by inspectors. The company also said it had been working on fixing the problems with its emergency answering service, but had not gotten to it before El Faro's voyage. It now is paying for a more expensive storm forecasting tool for its entire fleet.

The black box was recovered from the Atlantic last summer. The transcript of the conversations it recorded came in at more than 500 pages, and is the largest ever produced by the National Transportation Safety Board. It has provided clues to the ship's safety culture -- clues that never would have come to light without the data recorder.

The recording indicates Davidson felt the need to let the ship's owner, the international shipping company TOTE Maritime Inc., know about his routing decisions. TOTE maintains that Davidson had the first and last word in decision-making about his route from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico. His route ended up taking the ship directly into the strongest October storm seen in those waters in more than a century.

El Faro was one of two ships owned by TOTE that navigated in constant rotation between Jacksonville and San Juan. It brought everything from milk to Mercedes Benzes to the island. If El Faro missed its run store shelves sat empty, an economy suffered and TOTE lost money.

This run was to be El Faro's last before a major retrofit. Inspectors had found parts of the vessel's boilers that were "deteriorated severely" and service was scheduled in the next month. This came as no surprise: One Coast Guard inspector had identified a "disturbing" uptick in safety discrepancies during El Faro's inspections from 2013 to 2014. The Guard was in the process of adding the 40-year-old ship to its "target list" of U.S. cargo vessels that needed a higher level of scrutiny.

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