US government, sailors and families sue tanker owner over McCain collision
By CAITLIN DOORNBOS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 3, 2018
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The U.S. government, Navy sailors and victims’ families are seeking more than $66.5 million in damages from the owners of an oil tanker involved in a fatal collision with an American warship last year.
Ten sailors aboard the Yokosuka-based USS John S. McCain were killed and others injured in the Aug. 21, 2017, collision with the Alnic MC oil tanker off the coast of Singapore.
Energetic Tank Inc., which owns the tanker, filed suit in February asking a federal court in New York to relieve it of liability in lawsuits resulting from the crash.
Citing a Navy report and the discipline and prosecution of several Navy leaders for the crash, the Liberian company stated in its claim that the accident was “not due to any fault, neglect or want of care” of the Alnic.
Now, 42 parties, including the families of the 10 McCain sailors killed, have filed counter claims against the company totaling more than $66.5 million for personal injury, wrongful death and property damage. The deadline to file casualty-related claims was June 15.
The parties argue that Energetic Tank is liable for the accident, which happened when the McCain sailed into the path of the Alnic in waters east of the Strait of Malacca.
After confusion over shifting speed and steering control, the destroyer veered left and crossed in front of the tanker, which ran into the McCain, according to a Navy report.
Court documents describe the horrors experienced by survivors of the crash.
An attorney for enlisted McCain sailor Kerrington Harvey — an operations specialist of unknown rank who is asking for $10 million in damages including medical expenses, pain and suffering and loss of earnings — said in the documents that Harvey “endured extreme hardship in saving his life and participating in attempts to save and aid his fellow sailors.”
“[Harvey] was thrown to the deck, covered within debris, water and oil, suffered severe injuries, witnessed death, injury and destruction [and] was in grave fear of his own life ending,” the attorney said in the documents.
Another operations specialist suing for damages, Petty Officer 2nd Class Navin Ramdhun, was asleep in his bunk when the collision happened and was “trapped in the vessel compartment for over two hours fearing his imminent death,” according to court documents.
Ramdhun is asking for $5 million for loss of earnings, pain and suffering and medical expenses.
At issue in the lawsuits is the claim that the McCain had turned on lights signaling that the vessel was “not under command” as soon as crew perceived a steering loss, yet the Alnic remained in autopilot mode and did not respond to the signal, according to court documents.
While Energetic Tank’s suit alleges that the McCain’s turn into the Alnic’s path was “sudden, unannounced and unexpected,” the government argues that the McCain’s crew displayed the light signal communicating that the warship was “unable to keep out of the way of other vessels” about three minutes before the collision.
The government alleges that the Alnic had a responsibility to take “action to avoid collision” under the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea and should have been taken off autopilot or slowed down in a “timely” manner.
Further, the government argues the tanker was undermanned with a bridge team of “no more than three persons, rather than the five[-person] crew required by law,” documents state.
The government hasn’t calculated how much it has spent on repairs and other needs stemming from the crash — including the costs “from the substitution of another naval ship of the line to serve in place of USS John S. McCain” — but argues that Energetic Tank should be responsible for its damages, according to court documents.
“Energetic is liable to the United States for the full amount of its damages, plus interest accruing at a rate of 6 percent annually,” the government said in its claim.
Energetic Tank filed a countersuit to the claim, alleging that the collision was solely caused by the McCain’s “unseaworthiness” and the “negligence” or “recklessness” of those in charge of the ship and that the government should be held liable.
Energetic Tank’s countersuit claims those in charge of the McCain were “unfit for duty as officers in charge of a navigational watch; incompetent and inattentive; inadequately rested prior to assuming their duties [and had] inadequate training.”
The company also claims in court documents that the McCain’s “not under command” light signal was not displayed early enough for the Alnic to take action and was not accompanied by a whistle.
Some of Energetic Tank’s claims reflect findings reported in the Navy’s published overview of the collision, which called it “avoidable” and cited inadequate training, failure to comply with International Rules of the Nautical Road and insufficient leadership as contributing factors. The Navy has since taken steps — such as implementing new training — to address the problems, and several sailors and leaders have been prosecuted.
Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the commander of the 7th Fleet, was relieved of duty in August. The officer in charge at the time of the collision was sentenced at court-martial in May. Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty and was forced to retire. Two crewmembers pleaded guilty to a single charge each. Chief Petty Officer Jeffery D. Butler entered a guilty plea to dereliction of duty and was reduced in rank.
The government argues that the Navy’s report did not attempt to “determine fault or comparative fault of the vessels” and notes that the report said the assessment was “not intended to imply that [the Alnic’s] mistakes and deficiencies were not also factors in the collision.”
The Navy wrote in its post-collision report that it was “not concerned about the mistakes made by ALNIC. Instead, the Navy is focused on the performance of its ships and what we could have done differently to avoid these mishaps.”
Energetic Tank claims in court documents that it suffered loss and damages “in excess of $500,000” in the collision, and argues that the government should be held responsible.
“The U.S. is liable to [Energetic Tank] for the full amount of its damages, plus punitive and/or exemplary damages, plus interest,” the company said in its counterclaim.
Claims continue to be filed in the case and judgment has not been issued since proceedings are in the early stages. Parties have requested jury trials, according to court documents. No date has been set.