Sailors and Families Are Seeking $287M in New Lawsuits After Navy Ship Collision

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The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) sits in Dry Dock 4 at Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka to continue repairs and assess damage sustained from its June 17 collision with a merchant vessel, July 11, 2017. (U.S. Navy photo/Leonard Adams)
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) sits in Dry Dock 4 at Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka to continue repairs and assess damage sustained from its June 17 collision with a merchant vessel, July 11, 2017. (U.S. Navy photo/Leonard Adams)

The victims of a fatal 2017 Navy ship collision have filed a lawsuit against a Japan-based corporation for what they say was an "entirely avoidable" accident.

Forty survivors of an accident aboard the guided missile destroyer Fitzgerald, along with seven family members of sailors killed in the collision, are seeking more than $287 million in damages from the shipping conglomerate NYK Line. The company had chartered the ACX Crystal, a Philippine-flagged container ship, when it collided with the Fitzgerald off the coast of Japan in the middle of the night on June 17, 2017.

Seven sailors were killed when their berthing compartments flooded. Several others were injured.

Navy leaders have acknowledged several missteps that led to the fatal accident. They've also owned errors in a second fatal destroyer collision that occurred in the region about two months later. But the new lawsuit, filed on Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, argues that the company responsible for the ACX Crystal must also be held accountable.

"We feel very strongly that it's appropriate to sue NYK here in the U.S. even though the incident happened off the coast of Japan," David Schloss, an attorney with Koonz McKenney Johnson & DePaolis LLP who's representing the Fitzgerald sailors and families, told Military.com. "NYK has extensive business ties and profits from the United States, so we feel very confident that we'll be able to keep the case here in the U.S."

NYK Line Tokyo said in a statement that their "thoughts and deep concerns go out to all those directly affected" by the collision.

Related: Before the Navy’s Tragic Fitzgerald Collision, the Crew Faced These Big Problems

"NYK Line has cooperated fully with the investigation into the June 2017 incident, but as a Company we never comment on legal matters that are impending or before the courts," the company added.

Schloss said he and his clients are pursuing a second case against NYK Line's owner in Japan.

While the Navy was also at fault in the collision, laws prevent survivors and victims' families from bringing cases against the service. Schloss said some of his clients are upset with the Navy, but they universally agree that NYK Lines should be held responsible for the ACX Crystal crew's failures.

"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," Schloss said in a statement announcing the complaints. "Instead, the Crystal's crew violated at least five of these rules, and failed to follow its own Standing Orders."

Under Japanese law, surviving family members can recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the negligence of another, according to a complaint filed on Monday. And in the case of the sailors who survived the accident, NYK Line knew or should have known the Crystal's crew was not adequately experienced, trained or supervised, the documents state.

"Entrusting the ACX Crystal to them would likely involve an unreasonable risk of danger and injury to others," the survivors' complaint states.

In a statement issued the day of the accident, officials with NYK Lines apologized for the collision and said they would fully cooperate with the investigation.

"But thus far, they haven't accepted legal responsibility for it," Schloss said.

The sailors killed in the accident left behind children, parents, spouses and siblings, he added. And dozens of sailors aboard the Fitzgerald suffered significant physical and psychological injuries, whose diagnoses range from traumatic brain injury to post-traumatic stress disorder, Schloss said.

"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," he said.

The survivors are able to pursue punitive damages against NYK Lines, which are not only designed to compensate the plaintiff, but also punish the defendant. Those damages, which would be determined by a jury, could go well above the initial $287 million Schloss' clients are seeking.

Most of the sailors involved in the lawsuit are young enlisted personnel, though three officers are included. Cmdr. Bryce Benson, the ship's commanding officer who was injured in the collision, is not one of the 40 survivors involved in the case.

Despite the ACX Crystal's presence in a high-traffic area just before the collision, with about 25 other vessels in a 20,000-yard radius, no one alerted the container ship's master of the Fitzgerald's presence or course, the complaints filed on Monday state, which violated the Crystal's standing orders.

"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 complaint reads. "Instead, the ACX Crystal simply stayed its course."

And while the Crystal's second mate flashed a signal light, he did not sound the five short blasts required by the international rules of the road, the documents add. The ship was only taken off autopilot in the final minutes leading up to the collision, in an attempt to perform "very tardy evasive maneuvers," the documents add.

As the Crystal's charterer and employer at the time of the accident, NYK Line is "liable for the negligence of the crew of the ACX," the documents state.

Family members of those killed in the collision have suffered from emotional pain and suffering and loss of financial support, according to the wrongful death complaints.

Eleven of the sailors involved in the complaint have or are facing separation as a result of their injuries.

"The ongoing struggle of these men and women is in many ways the untold story of this collision," Schloss said.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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