Whistleblowing Ship Master Wins Case Against Matson and Hails Seaman’s Protective Act as Powerful Tool to Require Ship Owners to Maintain Safe Ships

matson ship
Photo: Sheila Fitzgerald / Shutterstock.com

Captain John Loftus, an advocate for merchant marine safety, won a decision from the Administrative Review Board of the Department of Labor that sustained a $1.1 million judgment against a company that punished Loftus for reporting unsafe conditions aboard the company ships.  

The decision, delivered on May 24, 2018 may also open the gate wider for seamen to qualify for protection under the “Seaman’s Protective Act” and help prevent tragedies similar to the loss of the SS El Faro.

“Seamen need to be able to stand up and report deficiencies,” Captain Loftus said.  “It is the first line of defense in preventing major accidents”. 

“Think about the cost in lives and money from the Deepwater Horizon incident,” he continued.  “If Seamen on the EL FARO were not in fear of job jeopardy, then deficiencies may have been brought directly to the attention of the USCG, and that may have precluded that horrific tragedy.”

Captain Loftus, who won an initial judgment against Horizon Lines, now owned by MATSON, hailed the decision as a victory against ship owners who harass maritime officers for reporting deficiencies.   

“The court has seen through MATSON’S ruse, just as they saw through the fabricated scheme for my termination by Horizon Lines,” he said.  “The message has now been sent, by not one, but two levels of the court system:  Retaliation against seamen who report safety issues to regulatory agencies will not be tolerated.”  Matson was denied on every count of their multi-point appeal.

Matson has until July 23 to file an appeal.

The Seaman’s Protective Act (SPA) was enacted in 1984 and amended into its current version in 2010. The purpose of the SPA is to augment the Coast Guard’s limited enforcement resources by encouraging seamen to report possible violations of safety regulations. It does so by prohibiting retaliation against seamen who report possible regulatory violations to the United States Coast Guard (USCG) or American Bureau of Shipping (ABS).  In so doing, the SPA promotes safe working conditions for all Mariners while protecting the environment and public safety. 

Part of MATSON’S appeal was based on trying to have the case dismissed as non-qualifying under the “Seaman’s Protective Act.” MATSON became responsible for Horizon Lines liabilities after it purchased the company. 

Captain Loftus said MATSON passed up a chance to take the high road, and in continuing the appeal aligns itself with Horizon Lines corporate managers who broke the law and fostered an attitude that has contributed to such tragedies as the loss of the SS El Faro.

 “Matson has followed down the path of those executives, who did not really stand for safety at sea, but rather wanted the façade of safety at sea,” Captain Loftus said.

“Isn’t that the exact type of thinking that was prevalent within the TOTE organization, and was a factor in the loss of the S.S. EL FARO? “the Captain asked.

“Instead of trying to prop up the illegal nature of these former executives,” Captain Loftus said, “MATSON would better serve the Maritime Industry by using this legal case, as an example of what management should NOT do.

“In the 2016 Spring Issue USCG Proceedings, for example, Rear Admiral Paul F. Thomas, USCG discusses the SMS and ISM Code, and puts it very succinctly:  

“An effective SMS must not only be very well developed in terms of process and procedures; it must also be deployed from the boardroom to the boiler room. There shouldn’t be any disconnect between the auditors and the surveyors, or between the CEO and the seaman. We all must work together to discover and eliminate such disconnects.”

“My hope going forward is that with this two-tier court decision, and affirmation, seamen will be better protected from retaliation, and that safety will become stronger to help prevent major accidents,” Captain Loftus said.