EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. - Tyree Webb, a former engineer on the towboat Anita M, has been awarded $4.3 million in his lawsuit against TECO Barge Line, which he successfully argued forced him to stay on the Anita M during Hurricane Katrina, “saddling him with post-traumatic stress syndrome that upended his life,” according to press reports, including those of the AP. The M/V Anita M is a 170-foot inland river towboat built by St. Louis Ship. It appears to have been renamed the Abby S, and then the Laurie Becnel, now owned by United Maritime Group.
In quoting from US District Judge David Herndon’s ruling, the AP reports that "the vessel’s workers were on the Mississippi, about 55 miles south of New Orleans, as Katrina barreled in. They expected to be directed upriver to safety but were stunned by TECO’s orders to ride it out. The company’s testimony suggested it was unconvinced Katrina would be a threat to life."
TECO Barge Line, at the time, was owned by TECO Energy, but it was sold in 2007 to an investment group as part of TECO Transport. It has since been renamed United Barge Line LLC. At the time of Katrina, TECO Barge Line was "a full-service river barge line transporting dry bulk and break products on the inland waterway system. With more than 750 barges, TECO Barge Line ranks among the leading river barge companies serving the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio rivers for domestic and export markets."
TECO did bring a witness, Vogene Crouch, to testify against Webb, who has become suicidal and is now afraid of the water as a result of his experience. Crouch was serving as the Anita M’s cook at the time of the incident, and testified that Katrina’s effects were not life-threatening, but Judge Herndon wrote in his decision that, “Her testimony did not square with other witnesses’ observations, or frankly with common sense … Her testimony was a blatant lie and the court is shocked that the defendant would even bother to tender such obvious false testimony.”
I am more than a little surprised at the amount rewarded. I haven’t read anything about this case in a while, but it is a pretty significant case for towing vessel operators. It is the first time (IIRC) that a plaintiff has successfully used an OSHA regulation to assert negligence per se against a towing vessel operator. The good thing is that subchapter M will bring all towing vessels into the relative safety of the Memorandum of Understanding that the USCG has with OSHA.
Has anybody read this case? What are your thoughts?