Shipowner in USS McCain Collision Sues to Limit Liability

Damage to the USS McCain (USN)

Published Jun 18, 2018 6:13 PM by The Maritime Executive

On August 21, 2017, ten U.S. Navy sailors were killed when watchstanders aboard USS McCain lost situational awareness and collided with the tanker Alnic MC off Singapore. The company that owns the Alnic, Energetic Tank, has filed a lawsuit in New York Federal Court that seeks to limit its liability for the collision to the value of the vessel and its cargo. 

The suit seeks protection for Energetic Tank under the U.S. Limited Liability Act of 1851. The law was enacted to spur investment in America's early shipping industry, and it limits the liability of shipowners to the value of the vessel in the event of a casualty.

Energetic Tank, represented by leading admiralty firm Blank Rome, claims that the vessel was worth $16,700,000 (plus a small additional amount for her cargo). Energetic seeks to limit the compensation for any claims filed by the Navy, injured sailors, or the families of sailors who died in the collision to no more than this amount. 

“The Limited Liability Act of 1851 is out-dated. It was meant for a time when ship captains couldn’t communicate with the shore, when they didn’t have radar and weather reports and GPS. Now it’s just an obsolete law that lets shipping companies wash their hands and walk away," alleged Cory Itkin of Arnold & Itkin, which represents the families of nine of the lost sailors and two sailors who were injured in the collision.  

“These families were still grieving.” Itkin says, “They weren’t looking for lawyers. They were looking for answers. By suing the families, the Alnic has forced them into court.”

The Navy produced a report that addressed the McCain's role in the casualty, and it found that a chain of BRM breakdowns led to loss of situational awareness and a perceived "loss of steering." In the minutes leading up to the accident, the McCain's master ordered the Helmsman and Lee Helmsman to split the control of the ship's helm and throttle. They mistakenly transferred helm control to the wrong console, causing the bridge team to believe (falsely) that a steering casualty had occurred. As the team worked to determine the cause of the problem, the McCain's Lee Helmsman accidentally pulled back on one rather than two throttle controls, causing the McCain to veer into the adjacent traffic lane, where she was struck by the Alnic MC. The McCain's bridge team only became aware of the Alnic's presence at the time of impact.

The position of the Alnic MC (AM) in relation to the USS John S. McCain (JSM) at about 0523 hours

While the Navy did not address the role of the Alnic in its post-accident report, Singapore's Transport Safety Investigation Bureau conducted an investigation addressing both vessels' actions. The bureau's report noted that while the Alnic's master had made an appropriate initial assessment of the McCain's intentions, he did not sound a warning signal in the moments leading up to the accident and did not take all way off to reduce the risk of collision. In addition, the Alnic had four rather than five watchstanders on the bridge, a violation of the company's SMS for transits of the Singapore Strait. The report also faulted the Alnic's master for not making effective use of his bridge team during the accident voyage, and concluded that he "did not have full support on the bridge."

In their response to Energetic Tanker's suit, the families of the McCain sailors asserted that the casualty was "avoidable had the Alnic complied with basic maritime safety rules to prevent collisions." Their response claims that the Alnic's crew, owners, and operators violated their basic duties and then filed the suit.

“The Navy has taken some responsibility, and there have been hearings, people have been held accountable, and while they have more to do, they’ve started to make changes to ensure disasters like this don’t happen again. The Alnic, on the other hand, is trying to avoid all accountability . . . and they are asking the court to let them off the hook," alleged Itkin.