By Jay Weaver | The Miami Herald
Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of the SS Norway explosion and in that time the legal clash between Norwegian Cruise Line and a Miami lawyer representing many of the victims has escalated.
Almost one year after a deadly boiler explosion in the bowels of the SS Norway, federal investigators are still trying to pinpoint what caused the highest loss of life in a decade onboard a U.S.-based ocean liner.
The National Transportation Safety Board isn’t expected to finish its preliminary report on the fiery May 25, 2003, accident at the Port of Miami-Dade until later this year.
Meanwhile, the storied Norwegian Cruise Line ship is still laid up in a German boatyard. And a charity fund for the Norway victims has still not doled out any of the $350,000 collected from cruise employees and other donors.
But the legal clash over multimillion-dollar death and injury claims has escalated into an ugly grudge match between Norwegian and a Miami lawyer representing relatives of most of the eight seamen killed and some of the 17 injured in the boiler blast.
“Enough is enough!” Norwegian’s lawyers wrote in a federal court motion to have maritime attorney William Huggett held in criminal contempt, fined and disqualified from representing his 10 clients, all crew members from the Philippines.
Miami-based Norwegian claims Huggett should be sanctioned for telling the media that the company made a confidential settlement offer of $11 million to his 10 Filipino clients. They rejected the offer, believing they could win millions more before a Miami jury — if they ever get their day in court.
Norwegian lawyers also accuse Huggett of ignoring U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz’s order last October that the death and injury claims be resolved through arbitration in the Philippines. She ruled the 10 Filipino crew members and their survivors must go that route because their contracts with the cruise line required it.
Huggett, who declined to comment for this story, has appealed the decision — setting up a test case that could affect thousands of Filipino seamen and potentially countless other foreign seafarers with such employment contracts.
Huggett, represented by former federal judge Tom Scott, denied in court papers that he ever disobeyed Seitz’s order. He said he has devoted his career to helping injured foreign seamen.
“NCL’s dramatic portrayal of events… substitutes harsh words for the reality of the situation,” Huggett responded to Norwegian’s motion for sanctions.
The legal salvos continued to fly.
Last month, Norwegian lawyer Curtis Mase accused Huggett of deliberately disrupting the arbitration process in the Philippines, citing a threatening Feb. 24 letter that he sent to the cruise line’s lawyer there.
“I will seek to prosecute you criminally and civilly if you have any contact with [my clients] outside of their attorneys,” Huggett wrote Philippine lawyer Domingo Castillo.
Huggett testified during the April 28 sanctions hearing in Miami federal court that he feared Norwegian’s lawyers — including assistant general counsel Daniel Farkas, who met with some of Huggett’s clients in the Philippines — would try to negotiate settlements behind his back.
“Certainly this letter is too hot and too strong. For that I apologize,” Huggett testified about his correspondence with Castillo. “But the context that it was sent in… is that from Day One, NCL has been soliciting, threatening and pressuring my clients to fire me and settle.”
Corazon Tejero, whose husband, Rolando, died from burns all over his body 26 days after the Norway explosion, said Norwegian and Philippine seafarers’ union agents targeted her and other Filipinos who filed negligence suits.
“At all times in both Miami and Manila, we claimants were regularly and persistently harassed, threatened and pressured by agents of Norwegian Cruise Line and the manning agency to fire William Huggett and settle directly with the company,” Tejero wrote in a sworn statement filed in court.
Tejero and four others resisted Norwegian’s overtures, court records show. But Huggett’s five other clients settled.
Huggett said those settlements, reached on March 24, amounted to “stealing.”
Huggett’s cocounsel in the Philippines, Joseph Capuyan, said that Farkas, Castillo and another Filipino lawyer “conspired to exclude me from the settlement discussion,” according to an affidavit.
Capuyan said he later learned that the five settled for $250,000 each.
A Norwegian spokeswoman, Susan Robison, said the company hopes to settle with the rest of the Filipino victims and their survivors — as well as with a half-dozen other foreign crew members killed or injured in the Norway explosion.
“Virtually all of the claims of the crew have been settled to the satisfaction of both the claimants and the company,” Robison wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “We are confident we can resolve the remaining few shortly.”
Maritime lawyer Charles Lipcon, who is working with Huggett on his Norway cases, said NCL’s goal is to settle them all to eliminate any chance of an adverse appellate ruling on the rights of foreign seamen to sue in U.S. courts.
“Whatever costs them the least amount of money is what motivates them,” he said.