By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) - A federal judge in Florida on Wednesday set a Dec. 21 deadline for damage claims to be filed by the families of 33 sailors lost at sea when the freighter El Faro went down last month in a hurricane off the Bahamas.
The deadline, coming just weeks after the ship disappeared on Oct. 1, is allowed under a 19th century maritime law and was invoked by ship owner Tote Services in a federal lawsuit last week.
Survivors and bereaved family members in other personal injury cases normally have three years to bring their claims, according to Houston lawyer Kurt Arnold, who has sued Tote on behalf of two seamen's families.
The same court deadline applies to families who want to contest Tote's claim that the company was not at fault for the disaster, according to the order signed by Judge Harvey Schlesinger in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville.
Schlesinger also halted further lawsuits against Tote and placed stays on those suits that have already been filed.
If Tote is successful in proving that it is not at fault for the wreck, the maritime law could limit the company's financial liability to either the value of the vessel and cargo after the disaster, or to a value based on the tonnage of the vessel.
Tote asked in its lawsuit for a liability cap of $15 million, which will be deposited within 10 days with the court by Steamship Mutual Underwriting Association on behalf of the company, according to the order.
The company has said the El Faro likely was doomed when it lost propulsion near the eye of the storm. The wreckage was found upright and intact last weekend at a depth of nearly three miles (5 km).
The 790-foot (241-meter) ship, with 33 mostly American crew, was on a regular weekly run between Florida and Puerto Rico, when the captain reported losing propulsion and taking in water.
Arnold said Tote's responsibility for the wreck is far greater than the limited liability under the maritime law.
"We're going to show that Tote knew the El Faro was a defective ship that they knowingly sent into the path of a hurricane. We'll be fighting to expose the Limited Liability act of 1851 as the backward and arcane law that it is," Arnold said in an emailed statement following the court order.
(Reporting by Barbara Liston; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Sandra Maler)