$1.6 MILLION SETTLEMENT REACHED IN CASE OF TOWBOAT DECKHAND DEATH ON THE OHIO RIVER
In a case involving laws unique to federal maritime practice, a $1.6 million settlement has been reached and approved by a federal court on July 10, 2014. On December 17, 2011, Christopher Mink was killed while working as a deckhand for C&B Marine on the M/V Anna C on the Ohio River near Butler, Kentucky. The incident occurred at a mining load-out facility operated by Carmeuse Lime and Stone, Inc. After the barge was loaded and the Carmeuse load out operator closed the barge’s cover with a winch operated cable, the towboat pilot instructed Chris to go from the towboat to the barge to disconnect the cable, which had been slackened. Without warning, the cable tightened when the Carmeuse employee tightened the winch and/or the towboat bumped the barge, pinning Chris between the barge combing and the steel cable, crushing him to death. He was only 28 years old. He is survived by his young daughter.
The United States Coast Guard responded to the scene promptly to inspect the equipment/scene and interview witnesses. However, it would not complete its investigation or release any findings for almost 2 ½ years. Consequently, Chris’s family retained admiralty attorney specialist Nelson G. Wolff of SCHLICHTER BOGARD & DENTON to investigate on its behalf and to fight for compensation for Chris’s daughter. A civil action was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, under the Jones Act and general maritime laws against C& B Marine, Inc. and Carmeuse Lime & Stone mining company for negligent failure to provide safe working conditions. (Estate of Christopher Mink, Cause No. 2:12-cv-51-DLB-CJS). C&B Marine then filed a complaint in federal court under an ancient admiralty doctrine to exonerate itself from liability, claiming that it had no knowledge of unsafe working conditions or of its unseaworthy vessel. Alternatively, C & B sought to limit its liability to the $400,000 value of its towboat. The admiralty court issued a temporary restraining order that stopped the civil action for compensation brought by Chris’s family. SBD successfully fought this claim and obtained an order dissolving the restraining order so that the investigation could continue. A jury trial was set to begin July 14, 2014.
SBD took numerous depositions of company employees and officials, secured expert testimony, and reviewed thousands of pages of documents. The evidence demonstrated more than just an unfortunate “accident.” Rather, it showed corporate negligence at the management level. C&B knowingly assigned Chris to perform work that he had never done at this facility, with a shore based manager who was filling in as a relief pilot on a job with which he was unfamiliar. The towboat mate was experienced at this job but failed to properly instruct and supervise Chris, or advise the mine that the crew was inexperienced. C&B admitted to hooking the cable to an improper location on the cover, which created a pinch point that would have been avoided had the cable been connected to the center of the cover. Its radio procedures allowed miscommunication with the Carmeuse winch operator, who admitted to tightening the cable when Chris was still attempting to release it. She reported that she did this in response to the mate’s radioing her to do so. The mate denied this specific order, but acknowledged that he did have radio communication with the mine employee right before the incident. Investigation also revealed that the towboat was defective. One engine was broken, which explained why it attempted to face the barge from an upriver position, contrary to safe maritime practice. This positioning increased the potential for bumping the barge and suddenly tightening the cable while Chris was attempting to disconnect it. Moreover, the mate failed to secure the cable to the center padeye of the cover, which would have eliminated the pinch point. He contended that the cable was tangled and could not be extended past the dagger pin box at the corner of the cover. Time considerations for this Saturday overtime work may explain why the mate did not simply unwind the cable and secure it to the proper location or to warn Chris that it was defective. The loss of situational awareness of the C&B crew could also most logically be explained by management’s decision to work the crew over 60 hours during that week.
SBD’s investigation identified additional evidence that Carmeuse failed to adequately train and supervise its load out operator, who was working without supervision for the very first time, reportedly because her supervisor was out Christmas shopping. Carmeuse admitted that the cable should not have been tightened while Chris was still attempting to disconnect it from the barge cover, yet it failed to implement adequate safety procedures to assure that towboat crew members were protected from incidents such as this.
After SBD’s investigation had been completed, the Coast Guard finally released its final report, finding that C&B and Carmeuse failed to provide adequate communication systems for this work. It also concluded that these companies “failed to identify the highest risks and develop strategies, written procedures and protocols to minimize [injury] risks.” Although the report also concluded that the deckhand lost situational awareness and placed himself in an unsafe position, he had minimal experience working at the Carmeuse site and was put into a work situation with other inexperienced workers, creating the need for more communication and supervision than what was provided.
The federal maritime and Jones Act laws limit compensation in death cases to the value of pain experienced by the worker before death and the amount of financial support he would have provided to his child. Here, one medical expert estimated the period of pain and suffering to be about 15 seconds, significantly limiting the amount of compensation available. As to the financial support component, Chris was paying child support in the sum of about $350/month or less than $5,000/year. An economist estimated that the highest amount of contributions payable until the child became an adult totaled about $300,000. All damages must be reduced, under federal law, by the percentage of fault of the deceased worker.
About one month after an unsuccessful mediation, as the trial date neared, defendants finally agreed to pay $1.6 million to settle the case out of court. Although no amount can ever fully compensate for the loss of a loving father, as Chris was, this sum will provide financial security for Chris’s daughter and enable her to have the college education he wanted for her. We are grateful to have been able to discover the truth and successfully resolve the case for this family and believe that they will now be better able to find peace from the unnecessary loss of Christopher Mink. We are less optimistic about the Coast Guard recognizing the legitimate need for more prompt reporting on these significant incidents and tremendously disappointed that it failed to impose financial penalties on either company responsible for this death. Such a posture sadly reinforces the corporate notion that employee injuries and deaths are merely a cost of doing business in an industry that too often places profits over safety.