Around 5:15 a.m. on March 12, 2016, the Specialist collided with a construction barge in the Hudson River and sank within minutes.
The tugboat, owned by New York Marine Towing, Inc., was part of a group of 3 tugs pushing a barge down the Hudson River from Albany to Jersey City, New Jersey. The group of tugs were navigating the construction around the Tappan Zee Bridge when, according to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, radio transmissions from the Specialist said, "We are too close. We have to move left." The construction barge was illuminated at the time of the collision, and more than a dozen workers were on the barge at the time of the crash. The construction workers did not suffer any injuries.
Although reports had been issued at the start of construction on the Tappan Zee to be aware of the construction equipment in the water and a designated boat channel had been created, this is an area known for treacherous currents. In 2013, a boat crashed in almost the same spot, killing a bride-to-be and her fiance's best friend.
Investigation and salvage operation of the Specialist underway
The Coast Guard searched the area for 12 hours on Saturday. The water in the area is about 40 feet deep and is cold - registering at about 40 degrees. They recovered the bodies of two of the three mariners on board the Specialist. Timothy Conklin, age 29, of Westbury, Long Island, New York and Paul Amon, 62, Bayville, New Jersey, were recovered and autopsied as part of the investigation into the collision. The autopsy reports revealed that drowning was the cause of death for both men. Divers continued to search for the third man, Harry Hernandez, 56, of Staten Island, New York through Sunday and into Monday. On Monday, using sonar, they located the boat at the bottom of the Hudson River. Divers sent down to examine the vessel located Mr. Hernandez's body but were unable to access it.
The lawyer for New York Marine Towing, Inc., James Mercante, spoke to the press, saying all three men were licensed, experienced mariners, and that the collision was a "shocking, horrific marine tragedy." New York Marine Towing has hired commercial divers to examine the vessel and come up with a plan to remove the Specialist from the river. The police and the Coast Guard will be present during the recovery process as part of their investigations.
The Specialist's history is not spotless. The vessel was involved in a Jones Act lawsuit recently. A Puerto Rican mariner assigned to the tug claimed that he'd suffered injuries in April 2015 when the captain activated a winch and metal cable attached to a line he'd been asked to replace. The metal cable broke and struck the mariner's legs, causing severe injuries that required surgeries and hospitalization. New York Marine Towing, Inc. settled the lawsuit in February 2016.
The families of Mr. Conklin, Mr. Amon, and Mr. Hernandez deserve to know why the vessel sank and who was responsible for the loss of their loved ones. Time is of the utmost importance for these families. Families of deceased mariners typically have two years in which they can file wrongful death claims, however maritime companies often take advantage of the time in which families are grieving their loved ones to file a Limitation of Liability pleading. As we saw with the El Faro tragedy in 2015, Limitation of Liability proceedings force the families to file their wrongful death claims by a specific deadline.
What the crew's families need to expect from New York Marine Towing
This is a strategic move by maritime companies, designed to confront the families of the victims as well as to try and convince people they weren't at fault. Limitation of Liability pleadings argue to have a judge limit the total amount the families of the victims can be compensated to the value of the vessel and its cargo. Limitation of Liability pleadings are a 19th century loophole in the Jones Act that, if you have the right attorneys, can be defeated. The pleading argues that the company "exercised due diligence" to make sure the ship was seaworthy and so the company should be exonerated "from all liability for any and all losses or damages sustained during the voyage... and from any and all claims for damages that have been or may hereafter be made."
These pleadings can be defeated by experienced Jones Act attorneys who know how to investigate maritime accidents and prove that the company did not exercise due diligence or make sure the ship was seaworthy. In the Specialist's case, the ship was built in 1956, according to ship registries. An experienced maritime attorney can hire a marine engineering expert to examine the ship after it is salvaged from the Hudson River to determine its seaworthiness.
Who can file a maritime wrongful death case?
Under the Death on the High Seas Act, if you are a spouse, a parent, a child, or a dependent relative, you may pursue a wrongful death lawsuit against the company or companies you hold responsible for your loved one's death. Depending on how you are related to the deceased, you may be able to claim the following:
- pre-death pain and suffering
- loss of earnings
- medical expenses
- loss of future earnings
- loss of inheritance
- funeral expenses and more
What's the difference between applying for death benefits versus filing a wrongful death suit?
Most mariners are part of large unions that invest in pension plans for the mariners. Obtaining these funds the unions placed in the crew's pension plans will require going through probate court. The unions also offer death benefits to the families of deceased mariners that also must be handled in probate court. These probate matters are totally separate from a wrongful death lawsuit and the families of the crew will most likely need to hire probate attorneys as well as maritime attorneys.
What we have seen maritime companies do is send a letter to the families of the victims that only discusses the probate issue and how to obtain a death certificate - it then refers them to a probate attorney. Families are misled into thinking this is the only legal issue they face and that they only need one attorney. Companies will do whatever it takes to avoid having to be held accountable in a court of law for the death of their employees.
What actions can families take now?
While the investigations into the sinking of the Specialist are ongoing, families should talk to maritime attorneys to find out their rights and how they can use the justice system to hold New York Marine Towing accountable for the deaths of their loved ones.
Wrongful death lawsuits investigate whether a ship was seaworthy, if the company did anything wrong that led to the deaths of the loved ones, and if there were any failures in safety rules that - if changed - could prevent accidents in the future. These lawsuits, if argued correctly, can do more than simply provide families with the compensation they deserve for their losses. These lawsuits have the power to change safety laws, improve corporate emergency planning policies, and prevent accidents from happening in the future.
A lawsuit could mean that no other family has to go through the same anguish these familes are suffering.
photo credit: Tugboat Information/Birk Thomas