Attorneys Reach First Settlement in El Faro Sinking


South Florida attorneys helped negotiate settlements totaling more than $5 million for the families of 10 people who died when the ship El Faro sank during Hurricane Joaquin.

Each of the 10 families will receive $500,000 for pre-death pain and suffering, but the settlements “included an amount for economic damages well above” that, said Miami attorney Jason Margulies of Lipcon, Margulies & Winkleman, who represented five of the families. Attorney fees were not included in the settlement document.

El Faro owner Tote Maritime said in a statement that the Jan. 22 settlements filed in Jacksonville federal court were reached in “a respectful and equitable mediation process.”

“Since the loss of the El Faro, we have focused every effort on supporting the families of those on board,” the statement said. “An important part of this support has entailed reaching fair and swift legal settlements for those who may choose them.”

El Faro sank Oct. 1 during a voyage from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and was not found until a month later. Crew members’ families alleged in their lawsuits that Jacksonville-based Tote Maritime negligently ignored hurricane warnings and did not maintain a seaworthy vessel.

The legal battle against the company is far from over, as many of the 33 families of those who died have so far refused to settle.

Miami lawyer Jack Hickey represented the estate of Richard Pusatere, which joined the settlement. But the Hickey Law Firm attorney will keep fighting for the families of two other clients, Louis Champa Jr. and Jarvon Whigham.

“We are absolutely not accepting $500,000 as an adequate amount for pre-death pain and suffering given what these seamen went through,” he said. They endured “at least seven hours of dread as they headed directly into a Category 3 hurricane.”

Hickey declined to comment on why he agreed to settle Pusatere’s case.

Margulies will also keep litigating against Tote Maritime on behalf of two clients. His five clients who settled were the families of Polish contractors brought on from an outside company.

“The crew of the El Faro were entirely American with the exception of the Polish riding crew,” Margulies said in an email. “The circumstances of the Polish crew were legally and factually unique and distinguishable from the other crew aboard the El Faro, which led to the settlement of those cases. We will continue to vigorously represent our clients who suffered tremendous loss due to the negligence of Tote and the unseaworthiness of the El Faro.”

The settlements included the family of Michael Davidson, the captain of El Faro, represented by Richard Berman of Blank Rome in Fort Lauderdale.

The same day the settlement document was filed, Berman also filed a motion to dismiss the remaining wrongful death claims against Davidson, except those arising under the Death on the High Seas Act.

The motion argues DOHSA is the exclusive remedy for deaths resulting from wrongful act, neglect or default on the high seas, and it does not allow for the award of non-economic damages. Berman did not respond to a request for comment.

The 10 crewmembers whose estates are included in the Jan. 22 settlement are Davidson, represented by Berman; Pusatere, represented by Hickey and his associate Brett Sager; Piotr Krause, Marcin Nita, Jan Podgorski, Andrzej Truszkowski and Rafal Zdobych, represented by Margulies; Keith Griffin, represented by Mark Boyle of Boyle, Gentile & Leonard in Fort Myers; Roan Ronald Lightfoot, represented by Linda Hester of Childs Reed in Jacksonville; and Howard Schoenly, represented by Equels Law Firm attorneys Thomas Equels in Orlando and Judson Orrick in Tallahassee.

Tote Maritime is represented by Holland & Knight attorneys George Gabel, Lawrence Hamilton, Michael Gropper, Suzanne Judas and Tim Conner in Jacksonville and Philip Rothschild in Fort Lauderdale.

by Celia Ampel via