Bouchard Transportation Lawsuit: Safety Record Not Relevant in Deadly Barge Explosion Investigation

A Corpus Christi Fire Department vessel attempts to extinguish a fire onboard a barge approximately three miles from the Port Aransas, Texas, jetties Oct. 20, 2017. A Coast Guard Corpus Christi MH-65 Dolphin and HC-144 Ocean Sentry are searching for two missing crewmembers. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Bouchard Transportation of Melville, New York, wants the Coast Guard’s investigation limited to the loaded oil barge which exploded in 2017 off the coast of Texas, killing two deckhands. But the Coast Guard took testimony about the recent history of maintenance and safety issues of the company’s fleet, calling the evidence relevant to its analysis of the fatal explosion. Coverage of the Coast Guard’s hearing on the incident can be found here

By Barbara Liston (Clearview Post) – A New York-based shipping company has sued in federal court to rein in a U.S. Coast Guard investigation into the cause of a 2017 explosion of a loaded oil barge off the coast of Texas that killed two seamen.

Bouchard Transportation claimed in a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Houston that its shipping customers were monitoring a Coast Guard public hearing in July into the cause of the explosion.

The company said that its reputation was being irreparably harmed by the testimony, which was live streamed over the internet, according to the complaint filed midway through the hearing by company lawyer David James of Clark Hill Strasburger in Beaumont.

The company cited testimony from current and former employees concerning safety being a “middle” priority for Bouchard, a stressful and intimidating work atmosphere, high employee turnover rate and general “unsafe” conditions on Bouchard vessels.

The company also said testimony by current and former employees about Bouchard’s safety culture amounted to a “character attack.”

Bouchard sought an emergency order to temporarily shut down the hearing. Although Judge Gray Miller refused to stop the proceedings, the lawsuit remains pending over the scope of the evidence to be considered in the Coast Guard’s final report.

Zachariah Jackson, 28, of Salt Lake City, and Du’jour Vanterpool, 26, of Houston, died after Bouchard’s Barge No. 255 caught fire and exploded as it was getting underway to a refinery in Corpus Christi.

Bouchard argued that the Coast Guard exceeded its authority by eliciting testimony about the company’s fleet and operations in general over the past two decades rather than limiting the inquiry to the single oil barge and explosion.

“Since it is being broadcast live over the internet, Bouchard’s customers are observing Bouchard being accused of virtually every form of wrongdoing and safety violation in its entire history; all under the guise and purported authority of a single marine accident, aboard a single vessel, in October 2017 which is getting very little attention,” the motion for a temporary restraining order stated.

Along with current and former Bouchard employees, professional ship inspectors testified during the two-week-long hearing in Houston, and thousands of documents were compiled.

After evaluating the evidence, the Coast Guard will issue a final report on the cause of the accident and deaths, recommendations to prevent a recurrence and evidence, if any, of violations of the law.

Bouchard also objected in its lawsuit to the Coast Guard granting interested party status to victims of the explosion, including the families of the dead seamen, who are suing the company. Interested parties are given access to collected evidence.

Jackson’s parents are suing Bouchard for more than $1 million. The family alleges the vessels were “improperly maintained, dangerous, unseaworthy, and otherwise unfit for the purpose they were being used,” according to the complaint filed in state court in Corpus Christi by Kurt Arnold of Arnold & Itkin in Houston.

Vanterpool’s survivors also have sued in state court in Houston.

Bouchard is trying to block the families’ lawsuits by seeking protection in federal court under a 167-year-old law written in the era of wooden Clipper ships to protect commercial ship owners from paying the full cost of damages in an accident.

The Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 limits the potential damage payout to the post-accident value of a ship plus the value of the ship’s freight – but only if the ship owner lacked knowledge of the problem or conduct leading to the accident.

In response to Bouchard’s petition for protection under the law in the U.S. District Court in Corpus Christi, Jackson’s attorneys say Jackson informed company management of multiple problems on the B255 barge in the weeks before the explosion, and asked multiple times for repairs to be made.

Bouchard has a “documented history of failing to operate their barges in a safe manner and putting the crew of their barges at grave risk,” Arnold wrote.

Bouchard also wants the court to prohibit the Jackson family from seeking damages for the pain and suffering that the family says Jackson endured before his death. The company suggests the he likely died instantly from shrapnel from the explosion.

However, the families are fighting back with a report by Kendall Von Crowns, deputy medical examiner in Houston. Crowns concluded that Jackson likely was engulfed in fire long enough for his shoes to burn and melt before being hit by shrapnel and blown into the Gulf of Mexico where he likely died from a combination of drowning and bleeding to death. His body was never found.

Bouchard is seeking to limit its total damage payout from the explosion under the limitation law to $5,952,151. The figure is based on an appraisal obtained by the company of the 39-year-old tugboat Buster Bouchard, which was pinned to barge B255 at the time of the explosion, which estimated its value at $5.7 million, plus the cargo valued at $252,151.

The most famous application of the limitation law occurred in 1912 after the sinking of the Titanic when damages were limited to $92,000 – or $41 for each living or dead passenger – based on the value of a few salvaged life boats and earnings from the voyage.

A bench trial is set for Jan. 14, 2019 at which Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos will decide whether the limitation law applies in the Bouchard barge explosion and whether to grant partial summary judgment on pain and suffering damages.

Links to articles covering last month’s Coast Guard hearing:

Part 1: ‘I Was Hearing Blasts Every Second

Part 2: ‘He Slipped Out of His Life Jacket and Sank to the Bottom’

Part 3: Conflicting Testimony and Disputed Phone Calls

Part 4: Former Bouchard VP ‘Shocked’ at Condition of Barge 255

Part 5: ‘No one could say they didn’t know about the problems’

Part 6: Final Day –  ‘Sitting On a Big Powder Keg’