Widows of El Faro Tragedy Overcome Outdated Maritime Law to Win Justice

The cargo ship El Faro tragically sank when it ran headlong into Hurricane Joaquin at the end of the 2015 hurricane season. All 33 people aboard drowned. Arnold & Itkin proudly represented the widows of three of the lost mariners. The widows represented by our firm recently reached confidential settlements with the owners of the doomed cargo ship that will ensure their families are taken care of for life.

While the settlements are confidential, the obstacles we faced in getting justice for these widows are not. Shortly after the El Faro sank, the cargo ship’s owners sought protection under an archaic law called the Limited Liability Act of 1851. The law, passed 165 years ago during the age of wooden sailing ships, was originally designed to protect our young nation’s budding shipping industry. Now, in the 21st century, modern ships have satellite and Internet access to inform them about bad weather. The useless law only serves to protect bad actors in the shipping industry at the expense of mariners and their families.

Had El Faro’s owners been able to convince a judge they were entitled to protection under the law, their liability would have been limited to about $15 million—not nearly enough to properly compensate the families. However, that trial would not have come until May 2018, and in the intervening months, many grieving and sometimes struggling families had to decide whether to settle or wait years for an uncertain resolution. This uncertainty gave El Faro’s owners an unfair litigation advantage.

At Arnold & Itkin, we pushed to ensure all necessary evidence was obtained and built a case nearly sure to convince a judge that El Faro’s owners did not qualify for limitation of liability. In the process, we were outspoken about the injustice of the outdated Limited Liability Act, and Kurt Arnold was quoted in many news reports discussing the unfairness of the law. You can find links to some of the articles here and here.

We continue to demand the right to a trial by jury. Since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Arnold and Itkin has fought for the ancient Limited Liability Act of 1851 to be repealed, making the ocean a safer place for men and women to work.

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