(CN) – The mother of a crew member of the HMS Bounty, which capsized off North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy, sued the ship’s owner for $90 million, for the drowning death of her daughter.
The Bounty is not the original ship, but a replica built in 1960 for a movie starring Marlon Brando.
The late Claudene Martilla Christian was one of 16 crew members aboard the Bounty when 25-foot waves capsized it before dawn on Oct. 29, 2012.
Her mother, also named Claudene Christian, claims the vessel had undergone slipshod repairs in dry dock, and that the Bounty’s owner and captain knew it was unseaworthy when it left New London, Conn., for a fund raiser in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“(T)he combination of Bounty going to meet ‘Frankenstorm Sandy’ was the greatest mismatch between a ‘vessel’ and a peril of the sea that would ever occur or could ever be imagined,” the mother says in the complaint in Central Islip, N.Y., Federal Court.
The Bounty, built from drawings of the original Bounty still on file in the British admiralty, was a 108-foot long wooden replica of the tall ship made famous by the mutiny of 1789 in the South Pacific.
Since the release of the movie in 1962, the ship was featured in scores of other TV shows, movies and documentaries, and eventually found its way to a berth in St. Petersburg, where it became a tourist attraction.
There it remained until 1986, when billionaire Ted Turner acquired the MGM film library and the Bounty along with it. The ship was used again in “Treasure Island,” a 1989 movie starring Charlton Heston.
Turner then donated the ship to a foundation, to operate it as an educational venture.
In February 2001, the Bounty, by then “in dire need for repairs,” was purchased by the defendant HMS Bounty Organization, an entity consisting of co-defendant Robert E. Hansen, who acted as the Bounty’s owner and manager, and a single employee, nonparty Tracie Simonin, who performed administrative duties, according to the complaint.
The other constant at the organization was nonparty Robin Walbridge, who was hired to captain the ship shortly after its purchase.
Christian claims the Coast Guard repeatedly inspected and certified the HMS Bounty over the years, documenting it as a “moored attraction vessel.”
She claims: “The USCG considered Bounty safe for public use in one instance alone, when she was securely moored to a pier.”
She claims the ship was never certified as safe to carry passengers for hire of any description, including harbor day sales. In fact, she claims, the ship spent a good deal of its time dry docked for repairs, most recently between Sept. 17 and Oct. 20, 2012.
During the course of the 2012 dry docking, Christian claims, workmen discovered “extensive deterioration and rotting of frames and planking on both sides of the vessel and also in a portion of the vessel’s stern.”
“In such circumstances, proper shipyard repair procedures and common sense dictate that additional steps be taken, including bit not limited to, removal of additional planking and testing to determine the full extent of the deterioration, to allow a proper repair plan to insure the vessel’s seaworthiness,” the complaint states.
After discussing the situation with Hansen, Christian says, “Hansen, Bounty Organization and Captain Walbridge decided neither to proceed with the aforesaid proper procedures not to advise the Coast Guard. Instead repairs were performed on the limited areas where planking had been removed.”
Christian claims that to save money almost all the work was done by the inexperienced crew of the Bounty, rather than by experienced workers employed by the dry dock company in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.
In addition to shoddy repairs of the rotten wood, Christian says, the crew was directed to make several modifications to the Bounty that increased its weight and impaired its stability.
“At that time Bounty departed Boothbay Shipyard, numerous items of work was uncompleted or never performed, such as the failure to clean bilges of debris, the failure to weatherproof electrical panels and electrical controls boxes, the failure to inspect and overhaul bilge system, including back-up pumps, the failure to secure lead ballast, the failure to install proper electronic communication and weather reporting equipment, and other necessary work to make her seaworthy,” the complaint states.
Todd Kosakowski, a project manager at the facility, testified during a joint NTSB and Coast Guard hearing that he advised the parties not to sail Bounty in any “significant or heavy weather conditions,” Christian says in the complaint.
But Christian says the captain and his employers had other concerns.
“On information and belief, a review of the financial records of Bounty organization prior to the ill-fated voyage would show numerous instances in which wages were owed to crewmembers, and that the vessel was lacking in proper provisions, supplies, necessaries, gear and equipment, and that the Bounty organization was typically, if not continuously, in debt,” the complaint states.
“The one ray of hope which appeared on the horizon which offered a potential respite from the financial difficulties was an affiliation and or partnership between Bounty organization and the Ashley DeRamus Foundation.
“It was public knowledge that Walbridge, Hansen and Bounty organization, hoped and believed that a newly launched partnership with the Ashley DeRamus Foundation would breathe financial life into the Bounty organization while simultaneously providing a floating platform to publicize children with disabilities. The expectations for Bounty’s arrival at St. Petersburg were high and many families were scheduled to attend.”
Christian says Walbridge called the Bounty’s crew to a meeting on the ship’s main deck on Oct. 25, 2012, and told them he intended to depart for St. Petersburg within hours to avoid Hurricane Sandy.
“He assured the crew that based on his extensive experiences with hurricanes and Bounty, that all would be safe and that the vessel was in fact safer at sea than in port. Walbridge also discussed his sailing plan which was to proceed east to get outside of the storm,” Christian claims.
However, “Captain Walbridge did not reveal to the crew that just prior to this meeting, he had initially revealed his plan to Chief Mate John Svendsen, his most senior officer. Svendsen unsuccessfully argued against it because of the obvious extreme dangers,” according to the complaint.
Coast Guard records show that two days into the voyage, on October, 27, 2012, the Bounty changed course, heading southwest. “She was now on a collision course with Sandy,” Christian says.
Within hours, the situation had become critical and the Bounty began to take on water – ultimately at 2 feet per hour – while also experiencing numerous mechanical issues. Although Svendsen repeatedly advised Walbridge to give the order to abandon ship, the captain ignored these requests – until about 4:30 a.m. on Oct. 29, 2012, according to the complaint.
“Within minutes, Bounty capsized 90 degrees onto her port side,” Christian says.
The Coast Guard arrived within an hour and 14 surviving crewmembers were retrieved from life rafts and hoisted aboard helicopters. Two people died: Christian’s daughter and Capt. Wallbridge.
Christian’s body had drifted away from the life rafts, was not found until late afternoon, by which time she had no vital signs. She was pronounced dead at Albermarle Hospital in Elizabeth City, N.C.
Walbridge was lost at sea and never recovered.
Christian seeks punitive damages for negligence, violation of the Jones Act, unseaworthiness, and her daughter’s pain and suffering.
She is represented by Ralph Mellusi, with Tabak, Mellusi & Shisha, of New York City.
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