HOUSTON (CN) – Co-captains claim ExxonMobil endangered them by equipping their ship with a remotely monitored “Fueltrax system” that prompted pirates to board their ship off Nigeria, pistol whip them and their crew and dismantle the system, which, ironically, had been installed to “reduce the frequency and success of fuel theft.”
Co-captains Rex Blanton and Kevin Norris sued Edison Chouest Offshore and ExxonMobil in Harris County Court. Their ship, the “Fast Servant,” supplied oil rigs off the coast of Nigeria.
Blanton and Norris both worked for Edison Chouest, and say they were recruited and hired in the United States. They say the “Fast Servant” was equipped with the Fueltrax system at Exxon Mobil’s direction to “reduce the frequency and success of fuel theft.”
“Fueltrax is meant to serve as a deterrent to such activities, as it provides information regarding fuel levels, fuel usage, fuel logistics and vessel tracking to defendants remotely,” according to the complaint.
“Defendants elected to use the vessel as a benchmark to test the effectiveness of the Fueltrax system prior to installing the system on other defendant owned and operated vessels in the region.”
But starting on May 20, the vessel began receiving threatening phone calls from anonymous callers, the captains say.
When they answered the phone, Norris and Blanton say they “were asked whether or not they were piloting the Fast Servant and subsequently received verbal threats specifically relating to the continued use of the Fueltrax system.”
The captains say they told Edison Chouest officials about the calls, and said they were concerned about safety, as the ship did not have aluminum plates on the inside of its glass windows, “as required by defendants’ own anti-piracy protocol.”
The only response they received came three days later from an Edison Chouest executive who said he would pass their message along, the captains say.
The men say that Edison Chouest equipped the Fast Servant with outdated radio equipment that allowed “nonfriendly parties” to intercept messages. They say the company used radio rather than a satellite phone because it’s cheaper.
As a result, less when the Fast Servant approached a checkpoint 10 miles offshore at 5 a.m., a ship carrying an unknown number of armed pirates approached the Fast Servant, Blanton and Norris say.
“Captain Norris attempted to increase speed but was unable to as direct result of the unseaworthiness of the vessel,” according to the complaint.
The pirates shot up and boarded the Fast Servant and assaulted the captains and their crew members by pistol-whipping them, the captains say. The gunmen then ordered Norris to identify and remove the Fueltrax system’s components.
“Plaintiffs were instructed to remove the remainder of the Fueltrax system,” the captains say. “As this was not possible, the assailants fired multiple rounds into the piece of equipment rupturing a ballast tank in the process.
“Plaintiffs were forced to their knees and repeatedly punched, kicked and struck with the butt of the assailants’ firearms.
“Captain Blanton attempted to stand and was struck in the back by an assailant’s machete causing severe injuries to his left arm, back and neck.”
Before leaving the pirates said if Blanton or Norris tried to use the Fueltrax system again they would be killed, the men say.
“It is clear from the assailants’ actions that their intention was to disable the Fueltrax system and send a message to defendants, through their violent assault of plaintiffs, instructing them not to interfere with assailants’ fuel bunkering activities in the future,” Norris and Blanton say.
“Notably, almost no items were stolen from the vessel other than the removable Fueltrax system components, communications equipment and a few personal items which were in plaintiffs’ possession at the time of the assault.”
Norris and Blanton seek damages under the Jones Act, and say the defendants failed to provide their vessel with adequate security despite having knowledge of “multiple, similar attacks in the region.”
They are represented by Kurt Arnold of Houston.