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Lawsuits Mounting Over El Faro Cargo Ship That Sank During Hurricane Joaquin

A second lawsuit has being filed on behalf of a crew member aboard the El Faro cargo ship that sank on October 1 in 15,000 feet of water east of the Bahamas. Court records show the wrongful death lawsuit was filed on behalf of Tina Riehm, widow of third mate Jeremie Riehm, one of 33 people aboard the ship. Last week, a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against the vessel’s owner and captain was filed by the family of Lonnie Jordan, a sailor aboard the vessel.

The ship was sailing between Jacksonville, Fla., and Puerto Rico with the 33 people and cargo that included cars and retail goods when it lost engine power and the ability to steer away Hurricane Joaquin. It was last heard from that morning when the captain the captain communicated that the ship had taken on water, was listing at 15 degrees and had lost propulsion. The U.S. Coast Guard called off a search and rescue mission after finding only one body amid debris from the ship. It is the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel since 1983.

Coast Guard records show the ship had mechanical problems dating back several years, including a failed boiler and a fuel leak. Former seamen who sailed on El Faro in the past said they had seen recurring problems, including engine failure, water seeping into rooms during heavy rain and problems lowering the lifeboats. The U.S. Navy is has sent a search and rescue vessel equipped with a “hydrophone” underwater listening device that can detect pulses emitted by the El Faro’s voyage data recorder, similar to the black box on airplanes. Aboard are diving and salvage experts, as well as a team from the National Transportation Safety Board and the American Bureau of Shipping.

The lawsuits have been filed against Tote Services Inc. and Tote Maritime Puerto Rico, as well as the El Faro captain, who is also presumed dead, according to court documents. The suits allege that Tote Maritime and its captain, Michael Davidson, were negligent in choosing to sail a 41-year-old cargo ship into dangerous weather despite being in an unseaworthy condition. Tote executives have previously said the captain sailed with a sound plan and blamed the sinking on engine failure.

The plaintiff’s attorney in the first lawsuit, Willie E. Gary, said that he would be seeking the ship maintenance records and had heard that it was undergoing mechanical repairs the day it departed as well as having other problems within weeks of the doomed trip. “Money won’t bring him back, I know that. But we’re going to change things and that’s what big business understands is when you hit them in their pockets,” Gary told reporters. Gary said Tote needs to place more emphasis on employee safety and less on profits. He also said more lawsuits would follow on behalf of the other relatives.

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