The El Faro Disaster Demonstrates Why the Limitation on Liability Act Should Be Repealed

Photo of Scott Armstrong

On October 1, 2015, the El Faro sank near the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin. Thirty-three crewmembers perished. Investigations since the accident have raised questions over whether the vessel was seaworthy and why it would sail into the path of a category four hurricane. The vessel is known to have experienced engine failure before her disappearance.

Families of those lost in the disaster quickly faced a Limitation of Liability action by TOTE Maritime, the owner of the vessel. The Limitation of Liability Act was passed in 1851, designed to help the American merchant marine industry compete with British and European fleets. At that time, vessel owners would often spend months or years without the ability to monitor their vessel or crew. The Act allows vessel owners to file suit in federal court to limit their liability for personal injury or death to the value of the vessel or the gross tonnage of the vessel multiplied by $420. In cases where a ship such as the El Faro is lost at sea, the vessel will often have little or no value. In those situations, the overall liability of the vessel owner is based on the vessel's weight.

In the case of the El Faro, TOTE Maritime filed a limitations action seeking to limit its total liability to slightly more than $15,300,000. It remains to be determined whether the limitations action will succeed. If lawyers representing the families of those lost in the accident are able to show that TOTE Maritime knew or should have known that the vessel was unseaworthy, then it is possible for the limitations action to be dissolved. If, however, TOTE Maritime is successful, then the company can rest assured that it will never have to pay significant damages for the lives of the seaman who were lost.

The historical justifications of the Limitation on Liability Act make little sense today. The U.S. shipping industry does not require extra protection to compete globally. Modern vessel owners have technology available to constantly monitor their vessels. Ship-to-shore communications, which were once slow, unreliable, and sometimes impossible, are now an integral part of the shipping industry. It is now easy, cost-effective, and industry standard for vessel owners to monitor their vessels on a daily basis. Any ship owner who fails monitor and track their ships should be penalized for failing to act reasonably.

Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, many sought repeal or amendment of the Limitation on Liability Act. The sinking of the El Faro should refocus efforts to ensure that injured seaman and their families are protected and fully compensated when they are injured or killed.

Maritime injuries require lawyers with the skill, training, and experience to navigate complex state and federal laws. If you or a loved one has been involved in a maritime accident, contact the lawyers at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend today to schedule your free consultation.

No Comments

Leave a comment
Comment Information

Awards & Recognition

  • 2016-2017 Equal Access to Justice Champion

    The Equal Access to Justice Champions Program was started by the Houston Bar Association in 2006, to help ensure placement of Houston Volunteer Lawyers cases with pro bono volunteers. Originally, firms were tiered according to size, and firms within each tier committed to accept a certain number of pro bono cases from HVL each year for five years.

  • The National Trial Lawyers | Top 100 Trial Lawyers

    The National Trial Lawyers: Top 100 is an invitation-only organization composed of the premier trial lawyers from each state or region who meet stringent qualifications as civil plaintiff and/or criminal defense trial lawyers. Selection is based on a thorough multi-phase objective and uniformly applied process which includes peer nominations combined with third-party research.

  • Million Dollar Advocates Forum

    Established in 1993, the Million Dollar Advocates Forum (which includes the Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum) is one of the most prestigious groups of trial lawyers in the United States. Membership is limited to attorneys who have won million and multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements. There are over 4000 members throughout the country. Fewer than 1% of U.S. lawyers are members.

  • Recognized by Best Lawyers America | Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz | 2017

    Recognition by Best Lawyers is based entirely on peer review. Their methodology is designed to capture, as accurately as possible, the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area.

  • Lead Counsel Rated

    In order to earn the Lead Counsel Rating, an attorney must not only demonstrate significant legal experience, but must also receive multiple peer recommendations advocating his or her ability. This is a key component in the screening process.

  • Texas Super Lawyers | Texas Monthly

    Each year, Super Lawyers recognizes the top lawyers in Texas via a patented multiphase selection process involving peer nomination, independent research and peer evaluation. The Texas lawyers who receive the highest point totals during this selection process are further recognized in Texas Super Lawyers Top Lists.

Get Your Free Case Review 713.587.9668

Let Us Help You Today! Request a Free Consultation

Bold labels are required.

Contact Information

The use of the Internet or this form for communication with the firm or any individual member of the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Confidential or time-sensitive information should not be sent through this form.


Privacy Policy

  • $50+ Million Personal Injury Fire and Explosion

    The firm successfully represented nearly 100 victims who suffered personal injuries and damages to property from a large fire and explosion resulting in a settlement of more than $50 million. The firm served as lead lawyers on the steering committee in this litigation.

  • $80 Million Personal Injury Large Plant Explosion

    The firm successfully represented 270 plaintiffs', taking a lead role in the plaintiffs' steering committee, who suffered injuries in a large plant explosion resulting in a settlement of nearly $80 million.

  • $50+ Million Personal Injury Plant Fire and Explosion

    The firm successfully represented 45 personal injury victims in a plant fire and explosion, serving on the plaintiffs' steering committee, concluding with a settlement of more than $50 million.

  • $22+ Million Personal Injury Work Site Accident

    The firm prevailed in a personal injury trial for a worksite injury client with the jury returning a verdict and resulting in a judgment of over $22 million for the firm's client.

  • $12 Million Auto Accident 18-Wheeler Collision

    The firm successfully achieved a $12 million settlement for the family of a man who died in an 18 wheeler collision.

  • $30 Million Personal Injury Burn Victims

    The firm prevailed on behalf of three burn victims with settlements totaling nearly $30 million.

Our Record Of Success.

When you are hurt and you choose a law firm to represent you in court or at the negotiation table, you need to carefully consider the firm's record.

More Success Stories