On Monday, the families of seven sailors who drowned on board the guided-missile destroyer Fitzgerald joined 40 shipmates injured in the 2017 collision with the ACX Crystal to sue the Japanese company that chartered the merchant vessel.
In separate filings, one for families of the dead and another for survivors, attorneys allege that Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha, the NYK Line, bears responsibility for Crystal crew negligence in the minutes before the 1:30 a.m. collision on June 17, 2017 off the coast of Japan.
“This collision was entirely avoidable had the crew and officers of the Crystal simply followed established international navigation rules specifically created to prevent collisions at sea,” lead attorney David M. Schloss said in a statement to Navy Times. “Instead, the Crystal’s crew violated at least five of these rules, and failed to follow its own Standing Orders.”
All told, the complaints seek more than $287 million in damages, Schloss said.
NYK Line representatives declined to comment due to the pending nature of the litigation, but said the company had cooperated fully with the collision investigation.
It was kept secret from the public in part because it was designed to prep the Navy for potential lawsuits in the aftermath of the accident.
While the Crystal’s registered owner was Olympic Steamship Co. S.A., a Panamanian corporation, NYK Line is the “real owner of the ACX Crystal,” according to the complaints.
Eleven of the 40 survivors have or will be medically discharged from the Navy in connection to physical and psychological injuries they sustained from the collision, Schloss said.
The plaintiffs include John Mead, the last Fitz member to escape Berthing 2. He told Navy Times earlier this year about the post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt he has grappled with since the disaster.
“Many of these brave young sailors have had their careers in the Navy unexpectedly cut short, having been discharged on disability due to their significant injuries caused by the collision and its aftermath,” Schloss said. “The ongoing struggle of these men and women is in many ways the untold story of this collision.”
The lawsuits allege that moments before the Crystal collided with the Fitz, the Crystal’s able-bodied seaman saw the warship through his binoculars and informed the second mate, who checked the radar.
Both ships were steaming in a bustling sea lane with vessels surrounding them, but neither the Crystal’s seaman nor second mate informed the Crystal’s master “of the presence or course of the USS Fitzgerald, in violation of the ACX Crystal’s own Standing Orders,” the lawsuits allege.
“Neither they, nor anyone else involved in the operation of the ACX Crystal, altered their navigation course or attempted to contact the observed vessel at this time,” the lawsuits state. “Instead, the ACX Crystal simply stayed its course.”
At about 1:27 a.m., roughly three minutes before the collision, the Crystal’s second mate “flashed a signal light down the line of bearing toward the USS Fitzgerald,” the lawsuits state.
“Despite taking this action, he did not sound any short blasts whatsoever, let alone the five such blasts required by the International Rules of the Road,” according to the lawsuits.
About a minute before the collision, the second mate flashed a second light down the line of bearing toward the Fitz, the lawsuits state.
“At the same time, he took the ACX Crystal off of autopilot and attempted to perform very tardy evasive maneuvers in order to avoid the collision,” the lawsuits allege.
Three survivors of the Fitzgerald collision echo a secret Navy report into the fatal 2017 disaster about the potentially lethal problem caused by dislodged lockers blocking escape routes. But it remains unclear what the Navy has done to fix it.
The complaints cite the Navy’s publicly released investigation into the collision, which blamed poor seamanship aboard the Crystal as one of the collision’s root causes.
The collision ripped a massive hole in the Fitz’s starboard side, quickly flooding a berthing area where shipmates slept.
Those shipmates who survived and are now suing NYK Line were in areas of the ship that were “dangerously affected by the collision,” the lawsuit states.
“All Plaintiffs in the Complaint suffered serious physical and psychological injuries as a direct result of the collision and the actions they had to take to save their own lives and the lives of others,” the complaint states.
The lawsuits were filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.
In January, the Crystal’s owners agreed to pay the U.S. government nearly $27 million to settle potential claims relating to their role in the collision.
As is common in these agreements, the January settlement notes that the deal is not an admission of “any liability, negligence, breach of duty, or wrongdoing” by the parties.
Roughly two months after the Fitzgerald disaster, sister Arleigh Burke-class destroyer John S. McCain collided with a tanker near Singapore, killing 10 more sailors.
A lawsuit involving families of the fallen and the survivors is ongoing.