Ex-towboat crewman wins $4.3M in Katrina lawsuit

AP News
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Posted: Mar 14, 2012 2:44 PM
Ex-towboat crewman wins $4.3M in Katrina lawsuit

A former towboat crew member has won a $4.3 million judgment against a barge company he claimed forced him to stay on his vessel during Hurricane Katrina, saddling him with post-traumatic stress syndrome that upended his life.

U.S. District Judge David Herndon sided with Tyree Webb in a ruling earlier this month that painted a harrowing picture of the 53-year-old Clarksville, Tenn., man's ordeal aboard the Anita M. when the storm's 145-mph winds sent it spinning in the Mississippi River and threw it into the shore. Barges torn free by the hurricane slammed into the towboat like pinballs, leaving crew members sufficiently scared that they made harried calls to say goodbye to their families.

Citing testimony from depositions and the two-day bench trial last September, Herndon found that the Anita M. was not designed or equipped to safeguard its crew from the force of any hurricane including Katrina, which packed winds at times of beyond 165 mph when it swamped the Gulf Coast in August 2005.

A message was left Wednesday with the defendant, TECO Barge Line Inc. of Metropolis, a far southern Illinois town along the Ohio River about 150 miles northwest of Memphis, Tenn.

According to Herndon's 73-page ruling, first reported Wednesday by The (Alton) Telegraph, the vessel's workers were on the Mississippi, about 55 miles south of New Orleans, as Katrina barreled in. They expected to be directed upriver to safety but were stunned by TECO's orders to ride it out. The company's testimony suggested it was unconvinced Katrina would be a threat to life.

Katrina left more than 1,600 people dead and caused $41.1 billion in property damage.

Herndon said the hurricane pushed the 170-foot-long, 45-foot-wide boat across the Mississippi and a quarter mile upstream, repeatedly spinning the vessel before it ran aground and got stuck. Raging river water at one point burst through an employee lounge during the storm.

"It just kept getting worse every minute," Herndon quoted crewman Wayne Crockarell as testifying during a deposition.

Crew members testified that they feared for their lives during the storm's rampage and called home to say farewell. Another Anita M. worker recalled wearing two life jackets. In the ensuing hours, the crew scrambled to bail out the flooding vessel as it was pummeled by barges and other objects.

All of the crew survived.

Nevertheless, Herndon said, Webb later became suicidal and got divorced. He has also avoided his grandchildren because of he can't tolerate their youthful noise and fears being around water even though he was an avid pleasure boater. His doctor testified that Webb is prone to flashbacks about Katrina, hyper-arousal, insomnia, agitation or outbursts of rage.

Herndon found that TECO's sole witness to support the company's theory that the storm was not life-threatening was the boat's cook, who said the experience was not different to any other trip. The judge found her testimony "simply a fabrication, an act of perjury, that one can only infer was perpetrated to curry favor with the defendant" because she still works for the company.

"Her testimony did not square with other witnesses' observations, or frankly with common sense," Herndon wrote. "Her testimony was a blatant lie and the court is shocked that the defendant would even bother to tender such obvious false testimony."