The families of three men who died when a fishing boat sank in a December 1993 storm filed suit yesterday in federal court, each seeking $20 million from the boat's owners, the U.S. Coast Guard and an insurance company.
Fourteen others, who say they were injured when the 58-foot El Toro II went down off Point Lookout in St. Mary's County, are seeking $300,000 each.
The El Toro II, which carried 20 passengers and three crew members, ran into trouble during a storm that packed 35-mph winds and churned up 8-foot seas as it was returning from a chartered fishing trip. Some passengers had to wait up to two hours in 54-degree water to be rescued.
Passengers Robert B. Shipe, 45, of Mechanicsville and Horace I.
Smith, 64, of Washington, and crewman Edgar C. Philips Jr., 19, of Piney Point died of hypothermia.
The suit alleges that Joseph C. Lore II and his son, Clayton S. Lore, who own Chesapeake Bay Fishing Parties Inc., the company that operated the 32-year-old El Toro, were negligent in not monitoring weather reports warning of the storm and for failing to properly maintain the boat.
The suit also names insurance company, CIGNA, and Kim I. MacCartney, an inspector for CIGNA, alleging that they did not inform the Lores of the results of an inspection report issued three days before the sinking, in which Mr. MacCartney said the El Toro "may be the worst Coast Guard-inspected boat I have seen."
According to the suit, the Coast Guard was named as a defendant because during an April 1993 inspection, no notice was taken of corroded nails that fastened wooden planks on the bottom of the hull. During the storm, three of the planks came loose, causing the engine room to flood, the suit said. The Coast Guard also was faulted by some of the passengers for delays in the rescue, although subsequent investigations determined that proper procedures were followed.
"This vessel was designated by the [insurance] survey as the worst-looking Coast Guard-inspected vessel he had ever seen and it was allowed to go out," said Paul D. Bekman, attorney for the families of Mr. Shipe and Mr. Philips. "We are asking the court or jury to award damages for their injuries and losses."
Mr. Bekman said all of the plaintiffs combined their lawsuits because there was a good chance that a judge would have done so anyway.
Attorneys for the Lores and for CIGNA insurance company said they would not comment until they had read the lawsuit. "When we receive it we will file an appropriate response," said J. Paul Mullen, lawyer for Joseph and Clayton Lore.
Investigations conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard blamed the sinking on corroded fasteners that allowed the wooden planks on the hull to separate. The NTSB concluded that the accident could have been prevented with better inspection of the fasteners, and that the deaths could have been avoided if the boat had been required to carry survival rafts, and to have a bilge alarm that would have given an earlier warning of the flooding.
In December 1994, the St. Mary's County state's attorney charged Mr. Lore and his son with manslaughter and reckless endangerment. The elder Mr. Lore said a trial date has been set for September.
Mr. Lore said the lawsuit came as no surprise to him. "I was expecting something like that," he said.