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Family Of El Faro Crew Member To Sue Maritime Company For $100 Million

Ryan Benk

The shipping company that owned and operated the ill-fated El Faro cargo ship is being sued by one of the crew member’s families.

Jacksonville attorney Willie Gary is alleging TOTE Services is responsible for the deaths of 33 crew members aboard the vessel.

But some legal experts are questioning Gary’s motives.

Gary announced the $100 million lawsuit against TOTE Services in front of the Duval County Courthouse Wednesday.

“It’s saying to corporate America, 'You can run, but you can’t hide,'” Gary said. “We’re coming after you.”

Gary’s representing the mother of El Faro crew member Lonnie Jordan. He’s alleging TOTE pushed the crew to maintain its schedule despite warnings of Hurricane Joaquin.

Gary said the company is guilty of negligence in the name of profit.

“Sir, this case is about the oldest sin on demand, and that’s greed,” Gary said.

But Jacksonville attorney John Phillips said the lawsuit is premature, considering the ship’s voyage data recorder has yet to be recovered and the federal investigation has just begun.

“You have a press conference on the courthouse steps of a fairly high-profile lawyer who is using outrageous terms and outrageous amounts,” Phillips said.

Phillips said these cases are usually tried in federal court, and he wonders whether the suit is a spectacle designed to lure clients.

The Jones Act, which was originally passed in 1920, governs maritime safety and includes provisions allowing families of injured or dead seafarers to recoup damages from their employers.

Because of its complicated nature, judges and lawyers usually devote their careers to maritime law and Phillips said that means a Duval judge could easily punt the case to a higher court with more experience.

Gary said his plan is to try the case in Duval County, but will represent the family in federal court if need be.

Gary also said he expects to file more lawsuits on behalf of other families in the near future.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.