NORFOLK — More than half of the crew aboard the Maersk Alabama during a Somali pirate attack in April 2009 have filed lawsuits in Norfolk against the owner and operator of the ship, even as a new movie about the hijacking is in the works.
The film, starring Tom Hanks and tentatively scheduled for release in March, will tell the story of Capt. Richard Phillips, who offered himself as a hostage to the pirates in exchange for the freedom of his crew and the container ship.
The five-day saga off the coast of Somalia ended when Navy SEALs killed three of Phillips’ captors in a volley of rifle fire.
A fourth pirate had previously surrendered to the Navy.
Though Phillips was hailed as a hero, 11 former crew members allege in lawsuits filed in Norfolk Circuit Court and in Mobile, Ala., that his employers, through Phillips’ actions, put them in grave danger when the ship sailed within about 250 miles of the Somalian coast despite warnings to stay at least 600 miles out because of pirate activity.
Together, the suits seek nearly $50 million in damages from Norfolk-based Maersk Line Ltd., the owner of the ship, and Alabama-based Waterman Steamship Corp., which operated and crewed it under a charter.
Both companies deal with U.S.-flag vessels, which means crew members generally must be U.S. citizens. The 20 crew members aboard the Maersk Alabama at the time of the hijacking were from nine states, including Virginia, and Canada, according to court records filed by Waterman.
The Virginia crewman is not involved in the litigation.
Among other things, the lawsuits filed by the 11 mariners claim bodily injuries and an array of damages. They accuse the two companies of negligence, failing to provide safe working conditions, and failing to pay injured crew members reasonable compensation for medical expenses and lost wages.
“Captain Phillips and Maersk put the men in harm’s way, in spite of warnings to keep them out of the pirate-infested waters,” said Deborah C. Waters, attorney for the crew members. “They did so for financial gain.”
No hearings have been scheduled yet in the case, which isn’t expected to go to trial for a year.
The suits are not the first to be filed against Maersk and Waterman after the hijacking. Crew members also sued in Texas in 2009. Litigation there has been tied up in jurisdictional disputes.
In the “days or hours” before the hijacking, the Maersk Alabama was transiting the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia, bound for port in Kenya, according to the lawsuits.
The ship was attacked by Somali pirates on April 8, 2009.
Days before the hijacking, both companies had received warnings to sail at least 600 miles off the coast of Somalia “because pirates were in the region and taking hostage ships and their crews,” according to the suits.
In spite of the warnings, the two companies, “through their officers, employees, and/or agents,” decided to bring the Maersk Alabama within about 250 miles of the coast, “primarily for financial gain,” the lawsuits state.
Nine of the lawsuits each seek $1 million in damages. Two others - filed by John M. Cronan and Atm Reza - each seek $20 million in damages.
Reza is mentioned in “A Captain’s Duty,” Phillips’ book about the hijacking.
An “AB,” or “able-bodied seaman,” with specialized training, Reza was the first to spot the pirates about three miles away and was manning the wheel, under direction from Phillips, as they boarded, Phillips wrote.
In legal filings answering Reza’s suit and that of Cronan, Maersk denies “any and all fault, liability or negligence.” The company said any injuries or damages resulting from the hijacking were caused by the criminal acts of the Somali pirates, not Maersk.
It further states that any damages to the crew members were caused by risks inherent in the nature of the work, risks the crew “understood and freely assumed.”
The company also claims that the Coast Guard’s approval of its “vessel security plan” provides Maersk immunity from liability, that crew members’ own negligence may have led to any injuries, and that crew members had been paid for any lost wages and medical expenses.
Waterman’s only filing in response to the lawsuits is a special plea arguing that Virginia courts have no jurisdiction over the company because it is not registered to do business in Virginia and has had virtually nothing to do with the state.
In a company statement emailed to The Pilot, Maersk said the lawsuits were “merit-less.”
“For more than 200 years, the U.S. merchant marine and the U.S. Navy have been combating piracy to protect the freedom of the open seas and our national interests,” the company stated.
“We are proud of the actions of the officers and crew of Maersk Alabama and the U.S. Navy to thwart the attack by Somali pirates against Maersk Alabama on its voyage in 2009 to bring U.S. humanitarian aid cargo to needy people in Africa. All of the crew returned home safely and the humanitarian mission was completed. It is unfortunate this proud moment in U.S. maritime history is being sullied by these meritless lawsuits.”
The Pilot attempted to contact Phillips at his home in Vermont, but he could not be reached for comment.
Capt. Larry D. Aasheim of Virginia Beach had been the skipper of the Maersk Alabama until nine days before the hijacking, when he turned over command of the ship to Phillips. Aasheim, who is serving as the ship’s captain again, wrote last week in an email to The Pilot from the Maersk Alabama, in the Indian Ocean off “the beautiful eastern shore of Somalia.”
Aasheim wrote that he could “easily state what I would, or could have done” if he had been on the ship at the time of the hijacking, “but the events leading to the piracy and the harrowing feeling of being captured is unimaginable to me and I would not trade places with Captain Richard Phillips.”
The captain said he “had never felt pushed into doing anything unsafe while working with the management” of Maersk.
“As a ship’s Master under the operational control of Maersk, there are always good lines of communications between the office and ship,” he wrote. “The operations and safety of the vessel requires extensive input from the ship’s Chief Engineer and Master. Since we are on the ship and in the surrounding environment, the office has a reliance for our opinion to operate in the most efficient and safe manner.”
Since the hijacking, Maersk “has taken extreme measures in keeping the crew and cargo safe,” Aasheim wrote.
In the 2008-09 time frame, “the regions in the Gulf of Aden and the eastern coast of Somalia which extended down south of Kenya, had a surge in piracy activity and there were warnings to avoid many areas surrounding Somalia,” he stated. “The Gulf of Aden is a heavily traveled shipping lane vital for middle eastern countries trade with the western world and shipping could not avoid these areas.”
Aasheim stated that there were warnings to remain 600 nautical miles from the shores of Somalia, “but the footprint for piracy attacks have encompassed the entire north western Indian Ocean from India to the Gulf of Oman and down towards the Seychelles and Tanzania.”
An advisory from the U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD, went out on the day of the hijacking. It was issued to owners and operators of U.S.-flag ships and “other maritime interests,” according to an email from an administration spokeswoman.
“In light of the recent increased threat to vessels transiting off the east coast of Africa, advice to masters is that unless they specifically have business to conduct on the east coast of Africa they are strongly advised to remain east of 60E and at least 600 miles off the coast of Somalia but even at that range they should take all necessary precautions to avoid, deter and delay potential pirate attacks,” the advisory stated.
Another MARAD advisory issued a week before the hijacking warned of the possibility of pirate attacks across a huge swath of the sea.
“Recent activity suggests that pirate activity off the east coast of Somalia has increased,” the April 1 advisory stated. “Attacks have occurred more than 400 miles offshore.”
The advisory recommended that “ships pass to east of the Seychelle Islands and Madagascar.”
The Seychelles are about 800 miles east of Somalia, according to Google Earth.
Aasheim wrote last week that while there was essentially nowhere to hide from the pirates, the course of the Maersk Alabama at the time of the hijacking may have been too close to Somalia.
“The skinny guys with guns have been far reaching and there is no ‘Safe Zone’ from these pirates,” he wrote. “The route the ship took in April 2009 was 300 [nautical miles] from the Somalia coast and ‘should have been safe’ but they were hijacked and in hind sight perhaps another course could have been taken further off the coast.”
In late 2009, Aasheim told The Associated Press that “Bottom line, it was the captain’s call.”
Aasheim said at that time that he had discussed the piracy threat with Phillips and that Phillips may have been trying to save fuel and time in not heeding the 600-mile recommendation.
“I told him there are advisories out recommending that vessels stay off an increased distance,” he said. “But he’s been on that run for a couple of years. If he increased the distance to 600 miles, it adds 1-1/2 days of transit time and a lot of fuel. You’ve got to think about that.”
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