The owners of a ship that collided with the USS McCain, killing 10 aboard including a Decatur-area native, are asking a court to free it from liability claims or strictly limit how much the Navy and the families of sailors who died or were injured can sue for compensation.
The legal petition by the company that owns the commercial oil tanker Alnic, which struck the McCain in August near Singapore, was filed in New York Federal Court. The petition seeks “exoneration from liability” or moves to cap the pool of money available to pay compensation to just $16.7 million.
For Theresa Palmer, the mother of Harristown sailor Logan Palmer, 23, who died in the McCain collision, the legal action came as an insulting, unpleasant surprise.
“When the families first got news of it we were very upset, very angry,” said Palmer, 55. “We’re already bereaved and now here is just one more thing to add to it all.”
Palmer acknowledges that the Navy has admitted it made serious mistakes in the way her son’s ship was being run. But she also is insistent in saying she believes the Alnic was handled recklessly at best and its crew’s incompetence was a significant factor in the collision that killed her son.
And she said the real tragedy in all of this is that, whatever judges eventually may decide to award the families, it won’t be enough. “There is not enough money to bring back any of our sons,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, said news of the shipping company’s legal action was “tragic.” Davis was in Decatur for a roundtable meeting with military families that included U.S. Rep Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Davis said he had briefed Thornberry on the development after speaking with Logan Palmer’s father, Sid Palmer.
“This is going to be a topic of discussion in our roundtable,” Davis added. “I think it’s tragic that any company, no matter where they’re based, is filing a lawsuit against the families who lost their children.” Davis pledged to do everything he could to “make sure this distraction” for the Palmers and other bereaved families is “done away with as quickly as possible.”
But now the titanic legal battle commences. A statement from Arnold & Itkin, a Houston law firm representing nine of the families, including the Palmers, said the Energetic Tank Inc., which owned the Alnic, is “trying to take advantage of the Limited Liability Act of 1851,” maritime law created to help the early merchant fleet of the U.S. by limiting the “liability of shipowners to the value of the vessel should disaster befall the ship.”
The statement said Energetic claims “that the vessel was worth $16.7 million and that the combined amount of compensation for any claims filed by the Navy, injured sailors, or the families of sailors can be no more than $16.7 million.” The Alnic legal action would force all claimants, if the shipping company is found liable, to accept this pool of cash as the only source available for compensation.
Cory Itkin, a partner with Arnold and Itkin, described the Limited Liability Act as being used as a legal shield to stave off future claims for realistic recompense. “Now it’s just an obsolete law that lets shipping companies wash their hands and walk away from deadly disasters,” he said.
Palmer, an interior communications electrician on the guided-missile destroyer, and the other nine sailors who died, were in their sleeping quarters at the time of the collision on Aug. 21, according to a report the Navy released Nov. 1.
In a court filing answering the Energetic Tank lawsuit and rejecting any attempt to limit possible compensation amounts, attorneys for Theresa Palmer, who represents her son’s estate, said his mother had suffered “a tremendous loss” with the death of her son. They insist the Alnic’s crew and owners are liable for that loss.
“The motor vessel Alnic’s crew, owners and operators violated their basic duties and then filed the… lawsuit against the Navy sailors and their families,” Theresa Palmer’s lawsuit said.
The lawsuit said the tanker was on auto pilot and failed to recognize that the USS John McCain had posted warning lights because it was having steering problems and unable to maneuver properly.
Asleep below decks near the point of impact, Logan Palmer was doomed to face a terrible death, the lawsuit said. “As a result of this conduct (reckless operation of Alnic) Decedent’s berth rapidly filled with water. Decedent tragically perished while trying to escape.”
The lawsuit continues: “Decedent sustained severe injuries to his body, which resulted in physical pain, mental anguish and other medical problems. He ultimately died as a result. Claimant lost her beloved son.”
Hundreds attended Palmer’s funeral Sept. 11 in Life Foursquare Church in Decatur. He was buried with full military honors in Harristown Cemetery. He was posthumously promoted to petty officer 2nd class.
In its 72-page report, the Navy found fault with its own officers’ conduct aboard ship and cited multiple ways in which the collision of the USS McCain might have been avoided. The Navy described in detail the circumstances leading up to the collision and blamed “complacency, over-confidence and lack of procedural compliance” for the outcome.
A Singapore Transportation Ministry’s Transport Safety Investigation Bureau report in March said the crash was caused by a sudden turn to port by the McCain that sent it into the path of the tanker.
It was the second major deadly collision of a U.S. Navy ship in the Pacific last year. Two months earlier, the USS Fitzgerald and a civilian merchant ship collided near Yokosuka, Japan, killing seven sailors. Navy investigations found that the collisions were “avoidable” and, in part, caused by the intense operational pace the fleet has maintained in recent years.
In the wake of the collisions, the Navy instituted reforms to shore-up training and alertness at sea.
The collisions also led to the removal and disciplinary punishments of several high profile Pacific fleet and ships officers.
Last month, Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez, the officer in command of the USS John S. McCain, entered his plea during court-martial proceedings at Washington’s Navy Yard.
Sanchez was sentenced to a punitive letter of reprimand and forfeiture of $2,000 a month in pay for three months. As part of a plea agreement, he will submit a request to retire, the Navy says.
At a separate court-martial Thursday, boatswain’s mate Chief Petty Officer Jeffery D. Butler pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty. He was sentenced to a reduction in rank. Butler’s role aboard the McCain was certifying sailors on the destroyer’s navigation system.
© 2018 the Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.)
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